Loudoun County Bond Referendums, 2011

Virginia county governments are required to put bond issuance to a voter referendum in order to borrow money on behalf of the county. Bond issuance is usually used by governments to raise money for large capital expenditures, and those bonds are repaid to their purchasers at a later date (plus interest). Bond referendums in Virginia almost always pass by a large margin, in large part because people think they are voting in favor of the agencies that will benefit (after all, who wants to vote ‘against’ schools, parks, or transportation?). Many voters do not realize that bond issuance contributes to government debt and should be used sparingly.

Acquisition of Fire and Rescue Apparatus

Citizens of Loudoun County, Virginia, will be asked through a bond referendum to authorize the Board of Supervisors to borrow up to 3 million dollars to finance, in whole or in part, new fire and rescue apparatus.

According to the United States Census, Loudoun County’s population grew faster than any other county in the United States over the last ten years. We are also an incredibly diverse county; our over-300,000 citizens live in everything from country villas to urban apartments to immigrant tenements to rural farm houses to planned communities. The eastern half of the county is rapidly developing into an extended suburb of Washington, DC, peppered with dense residential communities and imposing office buildings. The western half maintains a distinctly rural character, and is instead punctuated with farms and wineries. On our eastern border, only thirty minutes from downtown Washington (traffic permitting), is Washington Dulles International Airport. On our western border, nestled in the Blue Ridge Mountains, you’ll find the Mount Weather Emergency Operations Center—an emergency ‘continuity of government’ facility operated by the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) where much of the U.S. Congress was evacuated during the 9/11/2001 attacks. On our northern border you’ll find the Potomac River. We have eight-lane freeways and one-lane bridges. We have huge forests and huge office parks.

With a robust economy bolstered by government, commercial, and agricultural interests, and a rapidly growing population, it is perfectly appropriate for us to invest in our fire and rescue services. The 500 career and 1,500 volunteer personnel of Loudoun County Fire & Rescue need to be ready to face anything—residential fires, plane crashes, urban evacuations, water rescues, national emergencies, and skateboarding accidents. They deserve the most up-to-date and reliable equipment available. 3 million dollars is a mere 1.7 percent of the amount that our schools are asking for (see below); by that measure, this referendum is an incredible bargain. I endorse a YES vote on the Fire and Rescue Apparatus bond referendum.

School Capital Projects

Citizens of Loudoun County, Virginia, will be asked through a bond referendum to authorize the Board of Supervisors to borrow up to $169.62 million to finance, in whole or in part, a number of new schools and school improvements. The money would be used to build two new elementary schools, one new middle school, one new high school, and renovate another high school.

As I stated when I rejected last year’s comparatively tiny $26.8 million school bond referendum, Loudoun County Public Schools (LCPS)—like most public school systems in Virginia—is not exactly strapped-for-cash. According to the Loudoun County FY2012 budget (PDF link), our schools account for the vast majority of county expenditures. Including the school fund, school debt service, and school capital projects, LCPS stands to receive a whopping $630.42 million from the county—a mind-boggling 68.6 percent of the entire county budget. In other words, our schools get more money than every other county service combined. In addition, LCPS receives state and federal money to bring their total FY2012 budget to 746 million dollars. Given that LCPS teaches 66,266 students (as of August 2011), we’re looking at a real-world per-pupil cost of over $11,250/year—slightly down from last year, yes, but still quite absurd.

One of my reasons for rejecting the proposed school bond referendum last year (which ended up passing 55/45 percent) was that the proposed bond issuance would only raise $26.8 million, which was only 3.6 percent of LCPS’s normal annual budget. I felt then (and still feel) that if they really needed that money, they could find a way to set aside 3.6 percent of their existing budget for the year (or even spread it over several years). Perhaps LCPS was listening, because this year they are going all-out and asking us to give them a loan that equates to over 20 percent of their total annual budget.

As mentioned in my discussion of the Fire and Rescue Apparatus bond referendum, Loudoun County is growing. It makes sense that we need to build new schools. My concern, however, is about whether we are getting an appropriate return for our educational investment. In the 1961-62 school year, the United States educated our public school students at an average nationwide per-pupil cost of $393/year. Even if you adjust for inflation, that’s still only $2,808 compared to a 2007-08 national average of $10,441. We are spending nearly four-times as much on public education (inflation-adjusted) as we did fifty years ago, but our students are performing worse and worse relative to other industrialized countries—almost all of which spend less than us on a per-student basis.

I cannot endorse giving LCPS, or any other U.S. public school system, a single additional cent until they have accounted for how they are spending the largess they are already getting. Consider, for a moment, that if we had maintained our average per-pupil costs from 1960, plus inflation, LCPS would only need about 200 million dollars total this year. That’s only 30 million dollars more than what they are asking for in this bond referendum. In other words, we are being asked to take out a loan so large that it should be enough to sustain the entire school system for almost an entire year. There is no reasonable justification for authorizing a bond issuance of this magnitude without educational reform of equal or greater magnitude to go along with it. I endorse a NO vote on the School Capital Projects bond referendum.

Scott Bradford is a writer and technologist who has been putting his opinions online since 1995. He believes in three inviolable human rights: life, liberty, and property. He is a Catholic Christian who worships the trinitarian God described in the Nicene Creed. Scott is a husband, nerd, pet lover, and AMC/Jeep enthusiast with a B.S. degree in public administration from George Mason University.