SNOW HILL- Even though the Worcester County Board of Education (BoE) just officially accepted their budget this week, representatives are already looking to next year with trepidation.
“There is nothing left to cut in the future except programs and services,” said School Superintendent Dr. Jon Andes. “Programs and services in education mean our people. With 81-cents of every dollar going into our classrooms, we would no longer be able to insulate our children from the impact of future reductions. Without additional funding, these cuts would be devastating.”
Andes’ concerns stem from recent warnings given by the County Commissioners that next year’s budget will likely be less than the current one, due mainly to a revenue decrease brought on by the lower value of new property assessments. While Andes said he’s realistic about the countywide financial crunch, he warns that the school system is already stretched thin, and that further cuts could result in employee layoffs.
In fact, five school employees were already terminated this year to keep in line with a necessary 15-position reduction. The layoffs were an unpleasant surprise for the BoE, which had attempted to phase out all 15 positions through retirement and natural attrition.
“We had to net lose a number of positions,” said BoE President Bob Hulburd.
“It was our hope to avoid layoffs,” added Andes.
Unfortunately, at the end of the year not as many employees had transferred or retired as anticipated and five educational assistants had to be let go. Andes cautioned that it’s just a sign of things to come if the County Commissioners don’t look differently at BoE funding in the future and go beyond the Maintenance of Effort budget they approved this year.
“As we look to the future, we will be looking to our County Commissioners for a plan to restore local funding above the Maintenance of Effort level in order to sustain the excellent school system our community and staff have worked so hard to build,” said Andes.
The commissioners, however, will likely have a difficult time meeting Andes request.
“It [next year] is going to be a bad year,” said Commissioner Virgil Shockley.
With real estate in Ocean City due for reassessment in fiscal year 2012, lower revenue from property taxes is expected once the process is done. Since the county depends on property tax for the majority of its income, this will mean there’s a lot less money to go around. Additionally, even with more revenue this year, Shockley pointed out that the commissioners are already giving many departments besides the BoE near the bare minimum of funding to operate.
“There’s not much more we’re going to be able to cut,” he explained.
Shockley was adamant about his refusal to underfund public safety operations like fire, police, and rescue services. While he stressed how important education was, he didn’t see many options for the BoE next year except to try and become more efficient, since even Maintenance of Effort funding, the standard of the last few years, was not guaranteed.
One option to increase revenue despite falling property assessments would be to raise taxes. With that additional funding, the BoE would have a better chance of receiving at least Maintenance of Effort in FY2013. But Shockley didn’t think that was a viable option either.
“I won’t vote to raise property tax,” he said.
According to him, a significant portion of his district is “making it, but they’re struggling.” In his opinion, even minor property tax increases could drastically hurt homeowners, some of which are surviving paycheck to paycheck.
In the end, Shockley said that the county only has “X number of dollars” and that they would fund the BoE as best they could. As for what the board could do, Shockley suggested they break programs down into a list of “needs versus wants.” He promised to fight for everything they need, but couldn’t guarantee funding for things they simply want.
But according to Hulburd, the BoE has already done that.
“It’s really getting more difficult to squeeze anymore juice out of the lemon,” he said.
Hulburd asserts that the BoE is already running on the bare minimum. He pointed out that this is the third year school employees haven’t been granted a raise or even a step increase. However, the commissioners have been quick to note that no county employees have received raises or step increases for three years, either in the school system or other departments.
“We’re all in this together,” said Shockley.
Acknowledging that things are grim all around, Hulburd still urges the commissioners to “be creative” when working on the BoE budget next year. He stressed that he is appreciative of everything the commission has done so far, but hopes they’ll find a way to do more next year. Otherwise, he worries that Worcester County’s rating as one of the top school systems in the state might eventually suffer.
“I’ve seen it happen in other areas,” he remarked.