Taking Aim At An Easy Target

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Several County Commissioners gave the business to the Worcester County Board of Education last week, criticizing school officials for not letting them know earlier there would be a substantial expense overrun in the current budget.

After some harsh criticism and threats, the end result was the commissioners voting 5-2 to allocate $385,000 to offset the shortfall, but it did not come without some drama as some commissioners took their turns telling school representatives they were out of line for requesting the funds after the next fiscal year budget had already been approved. The idea here being the commissioners could have added this amount to the next budget rather than tap into the sacred reserve fund.

If you listen to the commissioners, the perception is the school board never told them about the possible overrun. However, there’s a paper trail that proves that’s untrue. In November, the school board let the county know it was approximately $991,000 over budget, a result of soaring fuel, maintenance and special education expenses.

Updates were apparently provided along the way letting the commissioners know how the school system was making out covering the shortfall. Whether the commissioners ever received these updates is unclear. Nonetheless, the commissioners are right to be annoyed over the last-minute request for additional school funds. It came less than two weeks before the close of the 2008 fiscal year. However, it’s worth pointing out there are other departments that go over budget, but it’s not always made public because it’s not typically this large of an amount. Additionally, it’s often done quietly and not in a public meeting so we are not aware how frequent the county uses its reserve fund to help other departments.

What Worcester County schools need they usually receive, and that makes it an easy target. The schools’ supporters are more vocal than anyone and they have every right to be so. What’s more important than the education of our youth? There’s nothing more important in this county than public education and that’s confirmed each year when nearly half of the county’s annual spending is directed one way or another to education.

It costs a lot of money to fund this massive operation, and some argue there’s a lot of fat in the annual budget. We would say that’s not the case for the most part. Anyone can objectively look at a budget and argue certain points. A common argument raised with the school system is the top-level administrators are over paid, while the rank-and-file teachers receive an average salary based on other state jurisdictions. There may be some merit to that, but it would need to be explored on a case-by-case basis and that’s a chore for another day.

It’s no secret the commissioners and school board are not exactly chummy right now. Last week’s meeting ruffled some feathers on both sides and some time is needed to clear the air.

Although it makes our job fun when they disagree, the public school system needs the support of county government and its elected officials. They need to be on the same page. Politics should not get in the way of that.

It’s no secret Worcester’s public school system is the best on the shore. The facts prove this year in and year out and that does not happen by accident. It’s the result of a sound commitment and partnership and that needs to continue despite some differences. They each need each other and last week’s episode perhaps proved there are some differences but the goals are still the same.

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