Superintendent Steven Walts did something remarkable last week. For the first time in his 15-year tenure at the helm of Prince William’s school division, he presented a budget that reflects what he thinks the county’s more than 91,000 students actually need, rather than one that fits neatly into the county’s revenue projections for the coming school year.
Why is that a big deal?
Well, for one reason, it’s exactly what the Code of Virginia asks him to do. But even more important, Walts’ spending plan could put our schools on a path toward making amends for years and years and years of budgets that fell short of what it takes to deliver the “world class education” promised in the school division’s tagline.
School Board Chairman Dr. Babur Lateef campaigned last fall on the need to spend more money on county schools. He said repeatedly that the county’s longstanding “revenue sharing agreement,” which dedicates about 57% of local tax revenue to schools should be “a floor and not a ceiling.”
Hence, Lateef pronounced Walt’s budget not only “historic” but also “courageous” after Walts presented the budget to the school board on Feb. 5.
The question now is whether the Prince William Board of Supervisors has the courage to make it happen.
There’s going to be a lot more discussion about the county budget before the supervisors set a final tax rate in late April. But we’re going to go out on a limb now and say the county should find a way to fund the school division’s budget and do so with confidence.
That does not mean we believe the county should raise real estate or personal property tax rates to find the extra $31.4 million needed to fund Walts’ budget. Doing so would pose too big a burden to county residents.
Rather, the supervisors should take thoughtful advantage of a combination of taxes currently available and those that likely will soon be at their disposal when the Virginia General Assembly wraps up its work in March.
During the past few weeks, state lawmakers have quietly advanced bills that would give counties the same taxing authority granted to Virginia cities. That means that if the bills are successful, the county board could levy new taxes, such as an admission tax or a meals tax to raise money for county schools.
Also, the board could and should revisit former chairman Corey Stewart’s proposal to raise the computer property tax rate for data centers, which, as Stewart liked to say, currently enjoy “a sweetheart deal” in Prince William County.
While data centers pay $4.20 per $100 in assessed value in Loudoun County and $4.57 per $100 in assessed value in Fairfax, they have a cut-rate deal of $1.25 per $100 in assessed value in Prince William (which might be why we have so many ginormous, power-sucking data centers under construction along Va. 234).
Stewart noted that Loudoun County collected a whopping $300 million in tax revenue from its data centers, which helps fuel school spending. Loudoun’s per-pupil spending currently outpaces Prince William’s by more than $200 million a year.
Stewart left the board before his proposal was approved, but it should not be forgotten. The current board should consider boosting data center taxes to bring them closer to that of our neighbors.
Beyond that, supervisors should not forget the message voters sent them in the November.
Board of Supervisors Chair Ann Wheeler campaigned on spending more money on local schools and beat her Republican challenger by 20 points.
Lateef, who complained constantly about not spending enough on schools, won by nearly 10 points.
On top of that, voters overwhelmingly supported the $396 million bond referendum that effectively gave county leaders their permission to raise taxes for roads and parks. And that happened without much support for the referendums by outside groups.
What does that tell us? Prince William residents want our leaders to spend more – if they need to – to improve county services. It’s time our elected officials follow Walts’ lead and listen.