SNOW HILL — Turnout at Tuesday’s annual Worcester County budget hearing was light, and the majority of those who commented asked only that the County Commissioners accept the Board of Education’s proposed spending plan.
However, some attention was given to how the overall county budget would be balanced, and whether or not that would mean a hike in taxation.
“We have children and families in crisis every day,” said Superintendent of Schools Dr. Jon Andes, who had presented the fiscal year 2012 budget to the commissioners earlier that day. He went on to say that county schools are “an oasis of hope” for residents of the county.
“Our schools are preparing children for a world we can only imagine,” he told the commissioners.
Andes asked the commission to accept the Board of Education budget, which seeks no large increases but instead advocates Maintenance of Effort, which represents the same level of funding per student from the previous year.
According to Andes, it is an unpleasant reality that there isn’t enough funding to improve county schools this year, but at the very least, county funding and the quality of education it leads to “simply must be maintained.”
Brandon Smack, a student at Cedar Chapel Special School (CCSS), was the first member of the public to address the commission. Smack’s disabilities would normally make it difficult for him to communicate. However, he is able to use a special device which allows him to select the words he wishes to say and then speaks for him.
Smack pointed out that many of his fellow students at CCSS also utilize technology to interact and learn and asked that the commissioners remember how important technology was to students while considering the budget.
Tom Cetola, a former commissioner himself, came forward on behalf of Worcester County Technical High School. He requested that the programs and field trips that make that school unique receive the funding and attention they deserve.
“Children are the future of our country,” he said. “Without them…we would fall flat on our face.”
Several members of local School Improvement Advisory Committees (SIAC) also stepped forward representing their respective schools.
Many of them had common concerns, especially in regards to the structural conditions of some of the county’s oldest schools and the worry that Worcester would lose good teachers due to this year being the third consecutive where no school employees received any type of raise.
“We knew when we took this job we weren’t going to get rich,” said Helen Schoffstall, a teacher at Snow Hill High School and president of the Worcester County Teacher’s Association.
However, Schoffstall asserted that most teachers had expected a normal progression up their career ladders, with the regular pay raises and cost of living adjustments (COLA) that go with that. Instead, teachers have gone three years without even COLA increases and actually find themselves taking a 2-percent pay cut this year, which will go to Maryland’s General Fund for retirement expenses.
But Schoffstall says that teachers are willing to accept that for the better good of education.
“We are all very dedicated to Worcester County,” she said.
All teachers were hoping for this year, according to Schoffstall, was for the commissioners to approve the Board of Education’s budget as it stands.
“I think our children can’t wait for education to become affordable,” she remarked. “We have to afford it today.”
While the bulk of
public comments were directed in support of the county school system, a few others addressed the assembly with worries over other parts of the budget, specifically, a fear of higher taxation.
Ocean City resident and former County Commissioner candidate Elle Diegelmann brought up a possible tax increase and asked that the commissioners not support any move in that direction.
While increasing taxes would help rectify the $3 million difference between revenue and expenditures evident in the current county budget, Diegelman asserted that many residents are in a tight spot and would not easily be able to weather more taxes.
“The financial stress is already overwhelming,” she said. “Please don’t raise taxes.”
Though the decision won’t be final until June, Commissioner Judy Boggs was willing to say that she felt the consensus of the commission was that Diegelmann was right.
Boggs pointed out that in March, a month where seasonal work is often beginning to pick up, county unemployment was still 15 percent and had peaked at 18 percent over the winter. She stated that, while a tax increase would be “the easy way to balance the budget,” it wasn’t likely the right way.
“It would be irresponsible to put that further burden on people,” said Boggs.
Commissioner Virgil Shockley echoed the comment.
“I’m not voting for it,” he said, referring to a possible tax increase.
Shockley noted that besides the high unemployment numbers, many people have been forced to transition from full-time jobs to part-time.
Coupled with rising gas and food prices, he too felt that adding extra taxes was not the best solution.
“No one’s in the mood to raise taxes,” he said.
At the end of the meeting, the commissioners assured those gathered that their comments would be remembered over the next month as the final budget is decided.
“I can promise that we’ll do the best we can with what we have,” said President Bud Church.
Discussion over the budget will continue at a May 25 work session, with the plan being confirmed on June 7.