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Parents and Educators: Keep Budget Intact

The Board of Supervisors held public hearings on the county and school budgets.

Like mother bears with their young, parents and educators are trying to protect the school’s proposed fiscal year 2006 budget from spending cuts.

The Board of Supervisors held two public hearings last Wednesday to give Loudoun County residents an opportunity to give their opinions on the county and school budgets. The majority made the annual appeal to keep the school budget intact.

Chuck Schonder of Sugarland Run, said he has been paying taxes for 49 years. “And I do that faithfully and with a relish, considering the fact that the … greatest priority is the public education of this county.

“Nothing impacts the quality of education like the instructor,” he said. “We need to do what we can to keep the quality of teachers.”

The $536.2 million school budget calls for an unprecedented $40,000 starting pay for new teachers. The spending plan calls for an average teacher pay hike of 8.2 percent, including step increases which are based on satisfactory performance, and an average classified pay raise of 8.7 percent. It also includes additional pay for teachers with or working toward advanced degrees. Eighty-eight percent of the budget is devoted to salaries and benefits.

The public hearing addressed the proposed $1.23 billion county and school budgets. It represents a drop in the real estate tax rate from $1.1075 to $1.07 per $100 assessed value. New assessments of single-family detached homes have increased by an average of 20 percent, accounting, in part, for the reduction in the tax rate.

The school budget represents 73.5 percent of the entire budget.

MAUREEN NEWTON and her daughter, Sophie, a fifth-grader at Evergreen Elementary School in Leesburg, addressed the board. The mother said the assessment on her house has increased by $100,000 this year, and she is willing to pay a hefty increase in property taxes to ensure her daughter receives an excellent education. “I’m willing to pay for this,” she said.

Sophie Newton asked the Supervisors not to cut the school budget. All of Evergreen’s fifth-grade classes have 27 students and many of the fourth-grade classes have 29 students, far above the 22.5 average set by the School Board. The teachers even lost their lounge to accommodate the overcrowding, she said. “We don’t have any more space.”

Louis Werts Jr. urged the Supervisors to provide additional funding for Rolling Ridge Elementary School in Sterling. Werts, a retired military officer and his wife, Cheryl, have two children in the school system. Rolling Ridge needs more computers, additional after-school programs to improve test scores, and gymnasium, library and playground expansions, he said.

Carolyn Deutsch, president of the Ashburn Elementary PTO, said the county needs the best educational system possible. “What could be more important than our children and our schools?” she asked.

Lea Longerbeam, a teacher, said the highest failure rate she ever experienced in any of her classrooms was a year when the school was overcrowded. “It saddens me to think back about that year,” she said. “Many families are coming to Loudoun because of the excellent school system. You can’t turn your backs on these children now. Please fully fund our budget.”

Claire Scholtz, another teacher, gave the Supervisors credit. “It seems like we were just here not so long ago,” she said. “You have one of the most difficult responsibilities that I know you take seriously. As leaders, whether we like it or not, we have to rise to the challenge.”

Karla Blasquez, who has a child attending Guilford Elementary School in Sterling, underscored the need to build schools and make renovations outlined in the Capital Improvements Program budget. “We need your support,” she said.

THE BOARD OF SUPERVISORS heard about other issues during the public hearing, such as:

* Kimball Hart, executive director of the Windy Hill Foundation, recommended that the county develop a public/private partnership. “We remain the only nonprofit organization providing subsidized and affordable housing in all of western Loudoun County,” he said. He proposed allowing the foundation’s tenants direct access to the Department of Social Services by employing a half-time social worker at the housing development. Windy Hill Foundation offered to provide free office space and to pay half the salary or $16,000.

* Joanne Cassidy of Sugarland Run urged the Supervisors to increase funding for the Northern Virginia Resource Center for Deaf and Hard of Hearing Persons, which she described as a “perfect example of a public/private partnership." “We save the taxpayers money,” she said. The 2000 census indicated 10 percent of Loudoun’s residents have a significant hearing loss, but insurance companies do not provide coverage for hearing loss or hearing aids, she said. The Board of Supervisors has been giving the resource center $28,000 annually, but has not increased the allocation in years. The number of people seeking assistance, however, has nearly tripled. She asked the board to increase funding by as much as $14,000. “Hearing matters ... but we take it for granted,” she said.

* Su Webb, a representative of the Northern Virginia Park Authority, reminded the Supervisors that there is only one public swimming pool in eastern Loudoun County and another one will be needed in the future.

* Pam Taggart, a member of the Social Services Board, asked the board to approve the Department of Social Services budget. The department is not helping “so-called handouts,” she said. “They enable people to become self-sufficient.”