Where Will New Cuts Come From?

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The county’s budget problems took a turn for the worst this week as it appears the county’s 3-percent mandated cuts will not include public education.

In a choreographed sequence of events at school board headquarters in Newark on Tuesday, Worcester County Board of Education did not approve a budget for the next fiscal year as was expected. Instead, school board officials said they refused to break the law by okaying a spending plan that violated something called Maintenance of Effort, which essentially prevents the County Commissioners from doing exactly what they did when they mandated a 3-percent reduction in spending for all county departments including education.

Maintenance of Effort says the county cannot cut per-pupil funding for the school system below a certain level. The 3-percent cut would exceed the mark. For the next fiscal year, the school board contends the most the commissioners can cut public education funding by is about $670,000, a figured derived from the fact student enrollment is expected to decline next school year.

This new wrinkle puts an entire new twist on the dynamics of the relationship between the commissioners and the school board. The commissioners are now in the position of seeking a waiver from the state’s Department of Education. This request basically means the county wants state education officials’ permission to fund the school system below the Maintenance of Effort requirement, which has not been done in recent history.

It’s reasonable to believe the waiver will not be granted by the state education board, even if the county can put forward examples of funding that should not be included by law in the per-pupil cost as has been alleged. That means the county will have to find more cuts to reach the daunting task of a balanced budget for the next year. Declining property assessments and increased costs in a variety of key areas have left a huge shortfall for the commissioners to reconcile.

“Professional friction” is what Worcester County Board of Education Vice President Bob Rothermel called the current state of affairs between the school board and the County Commissioners. The fact is school board members feel the commissioners’ cuts would dramatically impact education. It’s not lip service, they are simply passionate public education supporters. He went on to say, “We are the advocates of the school children, and we take that seriously. What we are doing here is dismantling a successful system. We are more than tweaking a system that has proven itself successful. We are the envy of other school systems in the state. With the county funding above the Maintenance of Effort requirement, we have delivered the No. 1 school system in the state. It’s working.”

While understanding the critical role the county funds play in the school system, the commissioners need to represent the entire county and feel the cuts need to be universal. It looks like the law will prevent the cuts from being equitable, and the county will likely only be able to reduce education funding by a certain amount.

That shortfall will have to come from somewhere. With the school system likely to be off the table beyond that $670,000 figure mandated by the Maintenance of Effort, the commissioners are an even more awkward situation than previously. With tax increases off the table, it’s going to be interesting to see where the commissioners can find cuts to make up the difference.

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