Waiver Decision Raises Fairness Question

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The County Commissioners decided last week to rescind a request to the state’s Department of Education for a Maintenance of Effort waiver that would have allowed the county to fund the local school system below a level mandated by state law. We think this was a questionable decision, the timing of which seems to be more political than logical.

News of the waiver request being withdrawn came as a surprise to many. Rather abruptly, after an impromptu gathering on Friday morning held without proper media notification, the commissioners decided, in a 5-2 vote, it would be best to withdraw its waiver request and let all the other departments cope with serious cuts while the school system, for the most part, escapes massive spending reductions.

The county apparently wanted to get the word out quick about its turnabout. Consider this: at 11:52 a.m. last Friday, the county issued an announcement for a press conference to be held at 2 p.m. the same day. At 2:49 p.m., a press release detailing the press conference was issued. It’s worth pointing out the county’s public hearing on the budget is next week, and that’s no coincidence. Public school advocates typically dominate the hearing, and there’s no question the commissioners would have been highly criticized if the waiver request was still on the table. They probably still will be criticized.

In Worcester, at issue here is about $2 million. Using the Maintenance of   Effort, the school budget calls for $71.9 million from the county for the next fiscal year. If the state approved the Maintenance of Effort waiver request, the county would have been responsible for about $70.1 million for the school system, based on the 3-percent cut mandate all departments were asked to adhere to months ago.

Last year, Worcester County’s contribution to the public school system’s overall budget came in at around $72.6 million. With a total enrollment of 6,376 students in the county’s public schools, the per-pupil allocation was about $11,388. This year, with enrollment declining to 6,318, to meet the same $11,388 per pupil allocation required by the maintenance of effort law, the county’s contribution would have to be around $71.9 million.

The fact is the county’s request would have likely been denied by the state because there are other jurisdictions in much dire shape. For example, Prince George’s County has $24 million riding on the state’s decision. Locally, the political thought seems to be the county may need the waiver more this time next year when the cash-strapped departments have no room to make any further cuts and the coffers are even increasingly depleted. That’s poor reasoning, leading us to wonder why the waiver was ever sought in the first place.

This Maintenance of Effort law, adopted over a decade ago, was designed to preserve levels of education funding. It protects the kids from being impacted by drastic reductions in spending. At its core, it may have good intentions, but the fact is this county has a record of serving the school system in a manner beyond reproach. Last year, for example, the county supplied the school system with $4.5 million more than the law required. In 2007, the county provided 10 percent over.

Times are extremely tight this year, and everyone will feel the effect. In Worcester, as a result of the commissioners’ decision, the fact is education will not be impacted as deeply as other departments, many of which scrambled to come up with double-digit percentage spending cuts. For some, including five of the commissioners, that’s appropriate because education deserves special treatment. For others, including two of the commissioners, it’s more about unfairness. It’s an interesting debate.

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