Prince William County schools project $1.6 billion budget, 5% employee raises

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Prince William County Schools is proposing a $1.6 billion budget for fiscal 2024 that would grant employees step and cost-of-living-adjustments totaling a 5% raise for the average school worker.

Superintendent LaTanya McDade made the budget proposal at Wednesday night’s School Board meeting, which will be followed Feb. 6 by a public meeting on the budget and then a public hearing Feb. 15. After a work session March 8, the School Board is scheduled to approve the budget at its March 15 meeting before sending it to the Board of County Supervisors for the final sign-off.

Instructionally, McDade’s proposal makes its biggest investments in special education, committing $2.8 million for 75 new full-time special education teacher assistants, which will come on top of the funding for 100 new special education assistants the school system added to the budget last year.

Another $1.7 million would go to 14 full-time instructional coaches that were previously budgeted with American Rescue Plan Act money, and the spending plan would introduce three new pre-K classes costing $1.6 million.

McDade said the original goal was to fund 100 new special education assistants — which would bring the division closer to its long-term goal of adding 350 new assistants by 2025 — but that the funding wasn’t there.

The $13.2 million in new “learning and achievement” spending is less than the more than $30 million in new money from the fiscal 2023 budget, which also added money for additional behavior specialists, social workers, kindergarten teacher assistants and more.

“We have less leeway, and it’s a tighter budget,” School Board Chair Babur Lateef told InsideNoVa. “This year, we have to make some harder choices on how to do our spending.”

Lateef said he was hoping to see more funding for school counselors in order to bring the division closer to the 250-1 student-counselor ratio recommended by the American School Counselor Association from the roughly 300-1 ratio it currently has. But costs have risen and the projected increase in state funding doesn’t match the increases from last year.

“We’ve had ambitious goals to improve instruction in the classroom, and those things do require increased hiring and salaries,” Lateef said. “We’re not going to be as aggressive in those areas as we want to be.”

This could be the final year the budget is formulated without collective bargaining with teachers and other school workers. Elections for the Prince William Education Association to become the exclusive bargaining representative for the division’s state-certified and classified workers are currently underway, with the last day of voting on Feb. 10.

The school system, like others around the state, is also still struggling to fill all of its new openings from the current budget and has exhausted its ARPA money, according to McDade.

“As we lose these federal funding dollars, we have to make some serious considerations about how we prioritize funding and source additional revenue to support high needs in our school division,” she told the school board Wednesday night.

Though projected revenues won’t be final until the state and county complete their budgets, the school system is expecting $777.9 million in funding from Prince William County (an 8% increase from fiscal 2023), roughly $751 million from the state (a 4% increase) and $42.4 million in federal formula funding (up 0.2%).

The state’s figure is about $10.7 million less than expected after the state aid calculation in Gov. Glenn Youngkin’s budget failed to take into account a local composite index for the state’s promise to hold localities harmless for lost grocery tax revenue.

Lawmakers in Richmond have said they’re exploring options to return the funding to schools — all told it will cost the state’s public school systems $200 million — but an agreement on how to do so has not yet been reached. If not corrected, the reduction would be lasting in future fiscal years.

“When VDOE shared those numbers with us originally, what they did not do was they did not run those numbers through the local composite index, essentially overstating those revenues,” school division Chief Financial Officer John Wallingford said Wednesday.

“The revenue reduction we’re going to experience is a baseline reduction of revenue to the extent of about $10.7 million moving forward basically in perpetuity. … It’s a substantial impact on the division over time.”

In other new funding, McDade’s budget would also commit $4.5 million in new spending to hire 62 full-time parent liaisons (after funding 35 new liaisons last year), fund the school system’s translation services and increase robotics programming.

The budget would also continue to fund the 60 new security assistants that were hired this year, in particular to add one for each elementary school.

The school system’s budget projects an enrollment of 91,909 students next school year, up from 91,631 last fall. Accounting for inflation, cost per pupil would remain about flat from the fiscal 2023 spending plan, despite the division’s portion of special needs students and English-language learners continuing to grow yearly.

Over the last five years, Wallingford said, the division’s population of English-language learners has grown by over 40%. The population of economically disadvantaged students has risen by 55% over that period.

“The demographic is changing. We’re getting more of those expensive kids while the number of dollars following them isn’t increasing — adjusted for inflation — very much,” Wallingford said. “So what that does is it puts pressure on schools to actually provide the funding necessary. … Adjusted for inflation, we would need to see those dollars keeping up and they’re not right now.”

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