Seeking your Input: Should the School System Help in Meeting the Budget Challenge?
In our July newsletter we laid out the County’s upcoming budget challenge in clear terms. From 2000 to 2007 real estate tax payments doubled. Spending increased an average of six percent per year on the county side and the county transfer to the schools increased seven percent. Then the economy collapsed. Now next year, even if we start no new programs, hold all existing programs to their current dollar level, and not give any pay raises, we are still faced with a potential $315 million shortfall due to declining real estate tax revenue.
If we decide to raise the real estate tax rate so that the average tax payment remains constant, we still will face a $100 million gap. To put that into perspective, we budgeted $92 million dollars in cuts in the recently enacted FY 2010 budget. Currently the school system accounts for 54 percent of the county budget and as the school year begins, I am seeking your input on whether the school system should share in the effort of closing that gap.
In the current year, every county department except the schools incurred a decrease in county funding, including the police and fire departments. County funding of the schools stayed constant, although state funding decreased. (Our schools are funded about 74 percent from the county and the rest from the state. In other parts of Virginia the reverse is true and the state pays up to 75 percent of school costs. This is due to a funding formula that taps Northern Virginia’s wealth for the benefit of poorer portions of the state.) Almost $43 million in one-time federal stimulus funding made up for much of the state decrease.
Overall, total school spending dropped about 2.8 percent from last year’s estimated expenditures, around the same percentage as the county’s overall spending reduction. Student enrollment, which was constant since 2002, increased by 3500 students in 2009 and is projected by the schools to increase another 5000 this year (although indications are that the actual increase may not be as large.) Those enrollment increases represent two to three percent growth each year, so some would interpret holding funding constant to be an additional two to three percent cut. Some would say if you factor in additional federal and state mandates, more students in need of extra English assistance and inflation, the effective decrease is higher.
Our public schools are the pride of the county and most everyone wants to keep it that way. I am the only member of the Board of Supervisors with children who currently attend the public schools, so I certainly want a strong school system for years to come. But, as we look to cut the county budget by $100 to $300 million this year, should the schools join the police, fire, parks, libraries, human services and other county programs that will see real spending reductions? Can the county continue to make up for reductions in state education spending?
The answer may depend on whether the school budget can be reduced without harming instruction. Some on the school board - the School Board has total control over how funds are spent, the Board of Supervisors only determines the amount of the county transfer - say that spending cuts mean larger class sizes, but does this have to be the case?
Last year’s citizen input process identified several possible areas of school funding outside of core instruction that could be reduced to achieve actual savings: bus transportation to GT programs; free PSAT and AP tests; consolidating some bus routes; eliminating foreign language classes in the elementary schools; reducing administrative expenses, etc. Of course, if we want to give our teachers a well-deserved raise (again, decided by the School Board, not the County Board), we need to find extra savings somewhere to do this.
Next year’s budget cuts will be more painful than this year’s. If the schools do not participate in the reductions, then every other county department must take twice the cuts because the schools are over half the budget. As we begin to deliberate the budget, I would appreciate your input on the question of whether we should seek reductions in the school budget. If we do not, are we prepared for large reductions in the rest of the budget, or should our tax payments increase?
Please send me an email at email@example.com and write “school budget question” in the subject line. Or call us at 703-425-9300, or write a letter the old fashioned way. I would appreciate hearing from you.