Proposed Education Budget Passed Amid Uncertainties

SNOW HILL — Despite the majority of Worcester County Board of Education members voting in favor of the newly drafted fiscal year 2012 budget, most of them expressed doubts and concerns about a number of issues.

One of the school board’s main problems was the early deadline for the budget this year, with the document due Feb. 23. In years past, the Board of Education had until late March to come up with next year’s proposed spending plan.

“Basically, I can’t understand why they [the County Commissioners] can’t let us extend our time,” said Board of Education member Donnie Shockley, the sole vote against approving the budget. “We won’t even know until April what we’ll get from the state.”

Though every other member of the board in attendance had voted in favor of the budget, Shockley was not alone in his dissatisfaction about the early deadline.

“We have to keep the process moving,” said Board Vice President Bob Rothermel, who agreed with Shockley that the county was not given enough time to craft a budget, especially since there were no assurances yet on the amount of funding that would be received from either the state or federal governments.

“An extra month would give us a little more time,” said President Bob Hulburd.

However, he made sure to point out that the current budget was in as good a condition as could be expected.

“We are voting on a balanced budget,” he said.

Beyond the general consensus that that the budget was being forced a bit too early, the actual numbers themselves raised a few eyebrows.

Since fiscal year 2009, funding for textbooks and other classroom supplies has dropped by 27 percent, or $579,233. The technology budget has dropped from $1 million in fiscal year 2007 to the new minimum of $200,000 a year, which does not allow for computer replacements or upgrades.

In addition, a press release issued by the board stated that “capital outlay — which includes the maintenance and repair of sidewalks and parking lots –has been reduced by 75 percent.”

Conversely, while funding is diminishing, costs are also rising. Fixed business costs, including utilities, are projected to increase by more than $665,000 next year. Because of the financial issues, the Board of Education pointed out that it was becoming more and more difficult for the county to keep up with its neighbors.

“The writing on the wall is that we’re asking our people to do more with less…we’re sort of stuck between a rock and a hard place,” Hulburd said.

Hulburd was referring to the fact that the budget marks the third consecutive year where no salary increase was factored in for employees.

“Over the last two fiscal years, 17 of the 24 Maryland school systems have provided their employees with some type of pay raise.  Due to the current local economy, this has not been possible in our county,” said Chief Financial Officer Vincent Tolbert.

Much of the blame for Worcester’s inability to raise wages was attributed to the fact that the county receives the second lowest amount of state aid in Maryland, despite having one of the highest unemployment rates and an above average number of students qualifying for Free and Reduced Meals (FARMs), which is generally used as an indication of poverty level. However, the formula used to determine county wealth is based on property value, not resident income. It’s a system the board has decried as unfair many times.

Besides not be able to grant employee raises, funding reductions and cost increases mean that 12 positions will have to be phased out of the county’s budget. While the plan is to remove those 12 positions through retirement and “normal attrition” instead of actual termination, the fact remains that there is no plan to replace those jobs and, since several other positions have been phased out over the last few years, there has been a steady increase of workload for educational employees throughout the county.

“In the education business, it’s the people that make a difference,” said Superintendent of Schools Dr. Jon Andes. “We’re not recognizing the value they [education employees] add to the school system … by not adding a pay raise. I regret having to send that message.”

For the time being, the board doesn’t seem to be able to do much to impact the budget, which will likely remain fragile for as long as the national economy does. However, the board did send a notice to the County Commissioners asking that the budget timeline be restored to its traditional deadline.

“What concerns us is that the continual reductions in resources – resulting from consecutive Maintenance of Effort budgets – will take their toll on our ability to meet the needs of our students,” said Andes.  “This is a real concern, especially since our County Commissioners are warning us that next year will be worse.  Our formula for success – having high quality people, programs, services, and small class sizes – is in real jeopardy without needed resources.”

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