Candland Supports Lower Taxes, Encouraged School Board to Set Budget Priorities

| February 10, 2015 | 0 Comments | Education

CandlandDec10Much has been made about the Prince William School Board’s $11 million budget shortfall and how School Board members are discussing cutting specialty programs and full-day kindergarten; Gainesville Supervisor Peter Candland (R) believes that is only half the story.

Candland reminds residents that the school division is still getting more money from the county than it did in previous years and that taxes are based on what the economy can bear, regardless of the 5-year plan.

“The economy does not listen to the 5-year plan,” he said.

Candland voted to offer a budget guidance of 1.3 percent. This modest increase follows last year’s more significant property tax increase of 2.5 percent to the average residential property tax bill in Prince William County. Candland reminds folks that 2.5 percent was the ceiling last year, but now it is the basement, as tax increases are cumulative.

There still may be wiggle room as the budget guidance is not binding until the Supervisors adopt a budget in April. However, whether the 1.3 percent increase will increase further mostly depends upon the guidance Supervisors received from the County Executive and the School Board as well as the will of their constituents. Overall, Candland remains in favor of keeping property taxes relatively low, although he has not completely ruled out coming up somewhat from the 1.3 percent.

He wishes the Supervisors never set the five-year plan at 4 percent, which sent the wrong message to the School Board. In fact, he voted against the 4 percent annual increase last April when he doubted the rosy prediction that the plan was based upon. Candland noted that Dr. Stephen Fuller of George Mason University’s Center of Regional Analysis warned that the Northern Virginia economy was not entering into an economic recovery as quickly as the rest of the nation.

“I warned the Board last year that the spending trajectory was unsustainable,” Candland said. “To me, the 2.5 (percent) is always where we should be starting.”

He thinks the School Board should have known that number was a high estimate, considering the 5-year plan has been adjusted in the past.

Now when School Board members, such as Lillie Jessie (Occoquan), ask Supervisors to keep their promises regarding the 5-year plan, Candland turns the tables on them, asking that they set their fiscal priorities.

In fact, Candland said he is encouraged that the School Board will have to set their priorities. He lauds Lisa Bell’s (Neabsco) proposals for prioritize reducing class sizes and increasing teacher pay. He also finds it encouraging that School Board members will review the budget to learn what programs cost and how effective they are for students.

And although so much has been made about it in the media, Candland doubts that full-day kindergarten will be affected. He thinks Chairman Milt Johns named that particular program to garner attention for the school budget.

“People are concerned since one of the first things that the School Board looked at was cutting full-day kindergarten,” said Candland. “I might be cynical, but I think people manufacture these crises to promote their political agendas.”

He understands that the schools have their popular programs, but he hears from residents all the time, asking him to keep their property taxes affordable. He also said that in a poll, constituents said they would rather have low taxes and cuts to services than vice-versa.

However, Johns stressed that the strain on the schools is worse than perhaps the Supervisors realize. Since their student populations grow by an average of 2,000 students each year, stagnant funds or very small increases do not go far to educate all of the new students entering the schools.

Because of this, the school division is required to build new schools, hire new teachers, put more buses on the road, and purchase more textbooks.

Candland admits part of the blame falls upon the Board of County Supervisors for taking years to increase the proffer rates to schools when new developments were being built. Now that proffers have increased, it should help the county get the necessary school funds, but it will not make up for revenue lost over the past decade.

But Johns said the budget short fall is even more dire than it first appears. Since the School Board has prioritized step increases for staff and the reduction of class sizes by at least one student across one-grade level, they will need to find more than $11 million. Johns estimates they will need closer to $20 million in order to fund those priorities.

Moreover, he defended his reason for wanting to cut full-day kindergarten, saying that it would yield a great savings for the school division and would be much easier than making piecemeal reductions.

However, the School Board voted not to cut full-day kindergarten, but to explore it as one of multiple options. Bell’s proposal will have School Board members reviewing all of the school division’s non-discretionary budget, including specialty programs, specialty buses, full-day kindergarten for non-Title I schools and the Capital Improvement Plan (CIP.)

However, it is very unlikely full-day kindergarten will be cut, because of all those programs, full-day kindergarten was the one that most School Board members named as their “sacred cow.”

Regardless of which programs the School Board decides to eliminate, Candland thinks the kind of budget scrutiny the School Board members plan to employ is long overdue.

Candland said that since he saw the School Board making an effort to set their financial priority, he is more inclined to provide them with the necessary funds. Plus, he would love to see Prince William teachers receiving a competitive pay and benefits and also wants to see class sizes reduced – something the school division did not begin to address until last year.

He also disputes the fact that the county has not been giving the schools their fair share of revenues. He said the school division has been receiving additional funds each year. It has received a 3, 5, and 6 percent increase in funding from FY13 to FY15, and now a 3 percent increase in school funding is being proposed for FY16.

“No one can make the argument that we are starving the school system,” he said.

Rather, he thinks the School Board needs to do a better job of setting their priorities.

“We’re spending on pools, large auditoriums – nice to haves,” he said.

Johns addressed this at the meeting, saying CIP items are paid via debt-service, much like a mortgage, but savings need to be found within the annual budget.

Candland hopes this budget season sets a new precedent in which the School Board faces their budget realities and sets their priorities. It is something that the western end School Board members Gil Trenum (Brentsville) and Alyson Satterwhite (Gainesville) also support.

Brentsville Supervisor Jeanine Lawson (R) said she was not on the Board when it voted upon the 1.3 percent budget guidance. However, she supports it.

“It is important to note, this rate will still increase revenue to both the county and the schools.  I look forward to working with my fellow Board members, the School Board and our constituents to draft a budget that will meet our needs in these challenging economic times.”

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