School systems do not function like businesses, primarily because they have no control over their government-mandated workload; that’s the crux of the message from Superintendent Edgar Hatrick during a breakfast with the business community Thursday.
“I often hear the phrase, ‘schools should run like a business,’” Hatrick said during a chamber PolicyMaker Series event dubbed the State of Education. “Unlike other industries, public schools don’t get to set production quotas. We have no say in the number of students we accept every year. We only deal with impact of their arrival.”
Loudoun County School Board Chairman Eric Hornberger (Ashburn) introduced the superintendent with a few remarks of his own, focusing on what he called the four Bs: budget, boundaries, business and betterment. He touched on Hatrick’s point during his comments.
“For us to be effective, truly effective, we will need to grow in our ability to manage the routine business of a growing school system without being consumed by it,” he said, calling on the business community to commit their intellectual resources. “We have a wealth of talent in Loudoun County that is a vast resource of expertise, experience and ideas.”
About 36,000 new students have enrolled in Loudoun schools during the past 12 years; enrollment is now approximately 68,000 students. During the past five years, Hatrick said, the school operating budget has increased 8.5 percent, compared with a 20 percent increase in enrollment.
“What this means is that our average cost per pupil has dropped $1,185 or 9.3 percent since the 2008-2009 school year,” Hatrick said. The puts Loudoun below Arlington, Fairfax, Montgomery (MD) and Prince George’s (MD) counties as well as the cities of Alexandria, Falls Church and Manassas. Hatrick said the value of the school system can be hard to see for decades.
“While I am a CEO, my business is not a business in a conventional sense. The bottom line of what our schools produce won’t be known sometimes for years, maybe even generations,” he said.
Among the difficulties of providing an education, Hatrick said, are state and federal mandates, many of which are unfunded, including requirements for diversity within schools as well as serving students with special needs. The number of student with disabilities has more than doubled since 2000, he said, while the number of students with Autism has “increased 12-fold.”
Hatrick said warned the public not to listen to nameless critics when reading information about the school system budget.
“There is a great deal of misinformation, usually anonymous, circulating about our budget,” he said, correcting critics who say up to 80 percent of the county budget goes to school. Hatrick presented chart from the county budget that shows the school operating budget comprises 55 percent of the budget. However, 55 percent does not include school construction. The county’s Capital Improvement Plan — of which the school system’s adopted share over six years equals 48 percent — comprises another 19 percent of the county budget. And Hatrick focused quite a bit on school construction.
Since the 2000-2001 school year started, the county has built 38 new schools, including eight high schools, eight middle schools and 22 elementary schools. To attempt to lower the cost of land acquisition, Hatrick said, the school system has expanded the number of “prototypes it uses to build schools to now include two-story options for both middle and elementary schools.
“These schools allow us to build on smaller and odd-shaped parcels,” he said. Estimated construction costs for two schools that will open in Ashburn are in line with the average cost around the commonwealth ($176.18 per square foot), he said. Those elementary schools and their estimates are Moorefield Station ($177.84/sq. ft.) and Discovery ($178.44/sq. ft.).
“We are right at the state average, even though we work in an expensive market and construct schools that are anything but average,” Hatrick said.
And more schools keep coming. There will be a bond question on Loudoun election ballots this year to pay for the construction of a high school in Loudoun Valley Estates II, an elementary school adjacent to Lunsford Middle School and renovations to Loudoun Valley High School, which is 51 years old. Another high school is also planned in Lansdowne, but that’s not part of this year’s bond question.
“As always, I remind the public that this is not a referendum on whether these projects will be built, only on their method of funding,” Hatrick said.
While education costs maybe high, the payoff is worth is, according to a study by Walden Economic Consulting that Hatrick called “a measure of the taxpayers’ ROI, or return on investment.”