Back on Feb. 12, we urged the Prince William Board of County Supervisors to fund the extra $31.4 million Superintendent Steven Walts and the School Board requested from county coffers to fully fund what was a historic new budget for local schools.
The world has undoubtedly flipped upside down since the economy-shattering COVID-19 pandemic. But before we get to that, let’s take a moment to remember why the school division budget was such a big deal.
As you might recall, the budget for next school year marked the first time in Walts’ 16-year tenure that he presented a budget to fund what he said the school division actually needs rather than a budget that fit neatly into county’s revenue projections. As a result, his spending plan asked for $54 million more in county funding, which was about $31 million more than the school division was slated to receive under the revenue-sharing agreement.
Walts’ spending plan would have used $44.7 million to give teachers and staff raises of about 4.8%, which included both step raises and a cost-of-living increases -- two things that haven’t happened in the same year since before the Great Recession.
Another $5.1 million would have matched state funding to add 20 new preschool classes for low-income children, which would have been the largest single-year increase in the history of the program.
Another $5.5 million was to be directed toward programs for economically disadvantaged students. The school division also sought to add 60 badly needed new positions, including 11 social workers, a school psychologist and 50 full-time special education assistants.
School board members had also planned to spend $1.3 million to raise school bus driver pay, and they shifted some funds at the last minute to give more generous raises to some of their lowest paid employees: temporary aides and substitute teachers.
Now, however, much of that probably will not happen.
On Monday, Board of Supervisors Chair Ann Wheeler, D-At Large, said she can’t support raising the real-estate property tax rate to fully fund the school division budget. Wheeler said it’s more prudent to keep the real-estate property tax rate flat – at its current $1.125 per $100 in assessed value – to provide residents some stability in amid the whiplash of daily events.
Even with a flat tax rate, residents’ annual tax bills will still rise by about 4%, given an increase in real-estate values over the past year. But keeping the tax rate flat will likely mean the school division will receive at least $30 to $40 million less than the school board asked for. The county government will similarly have $20 to $30 million less to spend.
Given this new reality, the school board and the board of supervisors will have to make difficult choices about what to eliminate from both the county and school division budgets.
Among the reasons this will be difficult is that both had yet to recover from years of slim budgets in the wake of the Great Recession. The county had fallen behind in pay for its public safety officers and its teachers as well as its investments in human services, among other things.
As the supervisors begin to dig into their budget work this week, we urge that they work with the school board look at the county’s needs collectively, rather than as two separate buckets.
It could be that some aspect of county services, such as positions to help residents apply for food stamps or Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, should take precedence over additional public safety positions. Similarly, perhaps the school division could delay spending on new artificial turf fields to retain the raises for our lowest paid school division employees.
It would be wonderful to give our teachers and county workers at least small raises next year to keep them from falling further behind our surrounding jurisdictions.
Perhaps it’s time to consider dipping into the county’s generous emergency reserve funds to pay whatever the school board members and supervisors deem priorities.
After all, COVID-19 is an emergency. If residents ever needed extra help from our schools and county services, the time is now.