Monday, March 3, 2014

Loudoun County School Budget

An open letter to the Loudoun Board of Supervisors,

In 2010, my Loudoun county tax assessment bill was $6325.00 and in 2013 the amount was $5513.00;  $812.00 below the level it was four years ago! My assessment increased by 7% for 2014, and if the Board adopts the $1.15 rate, my tax bill will increase by $143.00.  So yes, my taxes would go up, but they would still be far below what they were just a few short years ago. 

While I applaud the Loudoun Board of Supervisor’s efforts to cut waste, ensure that spending is on a needs basis, and to lower the tax burden on Loudoun residents, I don’t appreciate it being done with notion that it is simply to cut wasteful spending.  

Supervisor Shawn Williams (Broad Run) has stated, “When I hear that we’re cutting education, it is just not true.” Geary Higgins (Catoctin) said, “I don’t know where you want us to go with taxes. We already have the highest taxes in Virginia.”  Both of these statements are patently false and misleading.

Fact: Cost per pupil spending would be cut 4.2% if the Board’s cuts go through.  Loudoun County per pupil spending is lowest in our region and our tax rate is lower than many of the surrounding jurisdictions. 

When it comes to our schools, they are being asked to make do with minimal increases in the budget year to year.  The increases barely cover the cost of new schools, students, and other fixed costs that have increased.  The cry for cuts in wasteful spending are suspect and pledging to cut taxes to the peril of our school system is beyond unconscionable.   

Well, I am here to tell you that these tight budgets hurt and not always for the reason you first think. These cuts have far reaching effects.   

In 2004, my 2-year-old daughter was cut from the PIE (Parent Infant Education) program in Loudoun County after receiving services for over a year.  We were told that she was now able to walk and “good luck and she may still have some idiosyncrasies.” Suffering from repeated tantrums (the likes of which I wouldn’t wish on my worst enemy), sensory processing issues, still non-verbal, and being physically behind peers her age, our family took a leap of faith and moved to a state known for providing better special education services.  Within one month of our move, she was entered into the school system’s special education preschool program.  For three years, she received physical therapy, occupational therapy, and cutting edge applied behavioral therapy.

If we had not moved, who knows if we could have reached into her mind and gotten the result we have today. How long would we have waited to get services in Loudoun County?  The window of opportunity for therapy for kids like her is quite small and the younger they are, the better the outcome.

Today, she is a “normal” 6th grader in all honors classes.  We had a child with an autism diagnosis not knowing what her future would be and now she is thriving with no educational supports whatsoever. 

What did we gain as a society from this? Plenty.  She will grow up to be an independent adult.  She is smart and will contribute to society no doubt.  She gained. Our family gained. But society also gained.  

When someone says at a board meeting that they “don’t use the school system, “ I say yes, yes you do. Our entire society benefits from my daughter’s successful therapy.  Our society benefits from having a well-educated population.  Our society benefits in so many measurable and immeasurable ways from our education system that it is a foolish statement to claim you shouldn’t have to pay for a system which someone mistakenly believes doesn’t benefit them. 

If I don't own a car, I still help pay for the roads.  If I don’t use the park, I still help pay for the park. If I don’t go to the library, I still help pay for it through my taxes.  I don’t begrudge society these things because my fellow citizens benefit from them. My town, my state, and my country benefit from all of these services.

These school budget cuts filter down and hurt more than just a teachers pay and increase class sizes. They directly hurt children. They have directly hurt my own children. Not just in 2004, but again when we moved back to Virginia.

In 2008-2009, my other daughter was diagnosed with Dysgraphia, which is a learning disability that affects writing. Dysgraphia makes the act of writing difficult. It can lead to problems with spelling, poor handwriting and putting thoughts on paper. The LCPS system denied my daughter any educational supports or help because she “was passing and had no educational need for it.”  So, we did what any parent would do and we pulled her out of school every week during 5th grade and went to Loudoun Hospital for occupational therapy costing in excess of $15,000.  After fighting for two years, we finally got her an I.E.P (individualized Education Program) to provide her educational supports and today she is thriving.  

A large majority of special needs families experience added financial burdens for therapies, rehabilitation programs, specialty medical care, and other expenditures. I often think about the families out there without the resources to provide these services. What about the family who isn’t able to fight the system and their child falls through the cracks?  What about the child we neglect to help?  What about the long-term cost to society?  

It is a shame when I hear stories of Loudoun teachers being told to not discuss any suspected issues with parents. What purpose other than cost savings is at the heart of this internal policy?  To willingly circumvent services to children and allow them to needlessly suffer and to not realize their full potential is the biggest failure of tight budgeting and the continued nickel and diming of our schools. 
We should be ashamed that Virginia is ranked 47th in the country when it comes to services for people with intellectual and developmental disabilities.  In a survey of the best cities and states that offer the best support for children with autism spectrum disorders, Virginia was ranked 38th. 

To the Loudoun County Board of Supervisors I say please fully fund our schools. Fully realize the potential in all of the children who attend our schools and give the teachers the ability to truly do their jobs and to do so without one hand tied behind their backs. 

Society wins when a child gets the help and resources they need.