School Board Sends $87M Budget To Commissioners

NEWARK – The Worcester County Board of Education on
Tuesday night unanimously adopted the school system’s proposed operating budget
for fiscal year 2008, which comes to around $87.3 million when all sources of
revenue are added in, and will submit the document to the County Commissioners
for approval next month.

The total proposed budget of $87.3 million includes a
requested total county allocation of around $70.7 million from Worcester County
with the balance coming from the state in the form of various grants and other
aid. The budget approved on Tuesday reflects an increase in funding from the
county of about $6.5 million over what was approved last year.

As usual, the County Commissioners will carefully review
the school board’s proposed budget and not everything in the spending plan will
be approved. The review by the commissioners will follow the formal
presentation of the budget to the commissioners next month, which is when the
rubber will hit the road.

The budget approved on Tuesday follows a lengthy process
conducted by the school board including input from parent surveys, careful
planning and calculations. School board members were thankful the meat of the
process in terms of preparing and approving the budget was behind them, but
acknowledged there was much work to be done in terms of convincing the
commissioners everything in the spending plan is necessary in what has already
been characterized as a tight year.

“It’s been a long journey, but we have a long journey
still to go,” said Board of Education President Garry Mumford. “We’re going to
present this to the commissioners next month, and hopefully, we’ll be able to
make them believe our budget is their budget. We put the students first and
this budget is reasonable and necessary.”

Because of the state’s often perverse wealth-based funding
formula, which considers Worcester one of the wealthiest counties in the state
despite the fact over 30 percent of the students come from families at or below
the poverty line, the lion’s share of the school board’s annual proposed budget
comes from local funding through the county commissioners. As a result,
Worcester County funds roughly 75 percent of the school’s operating budget each
year, which is among the highest percentages provided by any of the counties in
the state.

School board members are cognizant of the strain the
funding formula puts on the county budget, but stand by the hefty spending plan
and its proposed increases.

“A sound, responsible budget keeps the school system
moving in the right direction, in the direction of keeping kids first,” said
Mumford this week. “We are constantly focused on what we need to do as a school
system to ensure that our kids will be successful. At the end of the day, we
know that we are only asking for increases that are fiscally prudent because
the requests meet the needs of our children.”

“Recruit, hire and retain” quality teachers has long been
in mantra for the Worcester County school board and the effort has paid
dividends with low class sizes and support programs that have made the local
school system one of the best in the state in terms of student performance and
success. A big part of that for Worcester County has been the slow, but steady
increase in teacher and support staff salaries, which again make up a
significant part of the increase in this year’s budget.

The proposed 2008 school board budget includes a 5-percent
Cost of Living Adjustment (COLA), as well as step and scale adjustments. The
total requested increase in staff salaries over last year’s approved budget
comes to just under $4 million, which is needed to recruit and retain teachers.
Despite the proposed increase, Worcester’s starting teacher salary would still
be ranked 17th out of 24 jurisdictions in Maryland.

“We want to continue to inch forward or hold our ground in
teacher and staff salaries,” said Chief Financial Officer Vince Tolbert. “We
don’t want to lose any ground.”

The proposed salary package was approved was ratified by
the Board of Education on Tuesday just prior to the formal adoption of the
proposed budget. The salary package came about as the result of careful
negotiation between the Board of Education and the Worcester County Teachers
Association (WCTA) and the Worcester County Education Support Personnel
Association (WCESPA).

Each year, the teacher’s association and the support
personnel association negotiate with the school board to arrive at a mutually
acceptable salary package and the budget adopted on Tuesday reflects that
process. Mumford said the school board has a relationship with the teacher’s
association unlike that in other jurisdictions.

“We’re fortunate in Worcester County because we try to go
beyond what is required in the normal negotiation process,” said Mumford. “We
try to have an extended conversation, both formally and informally. We talked
about the economy and our cost of living in Worcester County and this agreement
reflects that.”

Maintaining low class sizes is a stated goal of the school
system and despite relatively stable enrollment figures across the county, the
north end schools continue to grow. To that end, the school board is asking for
an additional 14 teachers this year, four of which are directed at class sizes
in Stephen Decatur High School and Ocean City Elementary. The other 10
positions are requested to meet school system goals and include special
education teachers, foreign language teachers, English as a second language
teachers, and a variety of other teachers for new and continuing support
programs.

Other major
items include one-time expenditures in technology, capital projects, and school
construction, all with the intent of providing modern, safe and well-maintained
schools. All in all, the spending plan for 2008 addresses many of the needs and
concerns expressed throughout the complex budget process, according to
Superintendent of Schools Dr. Jon Andes.

“Our budget
requests reflect the goals and initiatives identified by our parents and
represent our continued commitment to the success of our students,” he said.

Tolbert
agreed saying, “the key to budget development is being fiscally responsible
while meeting the needs of our students and staff. We believe our 2008 proposed
operating budget does both.” 

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