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Budget Season Gets Underway

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Hatrick

With the opening of three new elementary schools in September, a growing enrollment and the staff needed to accommodate those students, Edgar Hatrick, Loudoun County schools superintendent, is anticipating a fiscal year 2009 budget need of $801.4 million. The request, presented at the Nov. 27 School Board meeting, represents a $110.9 million increase over FY '08.

And with that, begins the back and forth between the School Board, who insists the school system needs the money to stay competitive while also providing the top-notch education residents expect, and the Board of Supervisors, who decide the county budget — of which more than 70 percent goes to schools — balancing the needs of the school system against everyone else in the county while keeping taxes low.

Even School Board members questioned Hatrick's request given the projected revenue shortfall for the county.

"Have you or any of your staff considered the present economic instability?" School Board member Sarah Smith (Leesburg) asked. Smith, who said she has always supported the budget request in the past, is retiring from the board at the end of the month.

HATRICK SAID that while the request represents an overall 16 percent increase, the increase to the local share is less than the school system actually received last year. According to a slide used at the budget presentation, the local transfer, or the local taxes, increased 15.8 percent in FY '08. This year's proposed budget represents a 15.6 percent increase and in FY '05, the local share saw a 19.5 percent increase. The local taxes provide 74.1 percent of the operating budget funding, with state revenue making up 22.7 percent, federal funding 1.5 percent and local fees and tuition providing .6 percent of the budget.

Hatrick said the school system is anticipating more funding from the state to the tune of an additional $25.4 million and a slight increase in federal funding. The state increase is attributed to a decrease in the composite index — a formula which uses adjusted gross income, taxable retail sales and true value of real property to determine how much funding a jurisdiction will receive for schools — for the county. But those figures are tentative.

"We're the first school system to present a budget. … We haven't seen what Gov. Kaine will propose," Hatrick said.

He also said the school system was counting on the Supervisors approving a $9 million fund balance, money approved for the current budget that wasn't spent, for the this budget. Last year, the Supervisors reduced the fund balance provided to the school system.

OF THE EXPENDITURES, $36.2 million is earmarked to cover expenses due to enrollment increases; $34.7 million is for continuing obligations and $20.4 million is for compensation increases including salaries and fringe costs. These top-three expenses represent 85 percent of the proposed budget.

"We're dealing with student enrollment growth like no other school system in the commonwealth. … If you took Loudoun County out of the mix, this year there was a statewide decline [in enrollment]," Hatrick said. "We spend money on people not things."

Hatrick is anticipating needing 532 new staff members just for the three new schools, while the school system as a whole will need to hire an additional 8,761 new employees to accommodate the growth.

In FY '99 the county had about 25,000 students, Hatrick said, this year, the school system had an enrollment of 54,000 and is projecting 57,317 student next year.

School Board member Mark Nuzzaco (Catoctin) said that while he understands the increases and decreases in the various budget categories, the general perception within the community is that the school system does not trim to find more economical ways to function.

"Is there a way to demonstrate that what we did last year for X amount, we are going to do for X minus sum … because we figured out a smarter way to do it? Is that unreasonable?" Nuzzaco asked.

Hatrick provided some examples where the school system has saved money and said the administration has to do a better job at educating the public about the cost-saving measures. He also cautioned that the easiest way to reduce costs was to increase class size.

"The problem I always have about doing it cheaper is it’s a vague discussion. … When you get into specifics, its like boundaries, I have a solution for boundaries that move someone else. I have a solution for the budget that impacts somebody else, but not me," Hatrick said. "Frankly, we don’t want to spend money on things. We want to spend money on people."