SNOW HILL — The Worcester County Board of Education is gearing up for a tough budget season and encouraging parents to fight for more funding for schools.
According to County Commissioner Virgil Shockley, however, what happens at the state level over the next few months will play the largest part in deciding how much funding schools will be given next year.
“This is a year we need to fight,” said Board President Bob Hulburd during Tuesday’s annual budget review session.
According to Chief Financial Officer Vincent Tolbert, Worcester County Public Schools may need to cut as much as $2,051,000 from the next fiscal year’s budget compared to the current one. Between utilities and insurance, an estimated $1.2 million will need to be located, while an additional $851,000 will be needed to keep the budget up to date with Maintenance of Effort requirements.
“Maintenance of Effort is not really maintaining,” added Hulburd. “It’s going backwards.”
Board member Sara Thompson felt likewise and advocated asking the County Commission for enough funding to not only avoid cuts, but to address long-standing budget concerns like employee raises as well.
“We have to increase the budget this year,” she said.
Parents and individual schools had the opportunity during the meeting to make their own specific requests to be considered for inclusion on the budget. Common requests from most schools in the county include “maintain present staff and class sizes” and “a step and COLA (cost of living adjustment) for teachers and staff.”
More unique requests included expanding a half-day music teacher to full-time at Ocean City Elementary School and adding more SMART boards, which are technologically advanced learning tools, to Showell Elementary School.
In general, the message coming from the schools and parents was that teachers and staff are due for a raise, since they haven’t received one in three years. Of comparable priority would be the desire to maintain small class sizes. Meeting those goals won’t be easy, admitted Superintendent of Schools Dr. Jon Andes.
“We have a significant challenge this year in the budget,” he said.
Adding to the burden is the conflict over renovating Snow Hill High School (SHHS). Earlier this year, the commission voted to delay work on the high school due to budget constraints. The decision didn’t sit well with the board or parents of SHHS students, and Hulburd is passionate about seeing renovations begin, especially since the commission did make a commitment to SHHS many years ago.
“For them, backing away would be breaking a promise,” he said.
In the event that the commission offered the board a choice between budget requests, Hulburd said that the board would still push for as much as possible.
One possible scenario, where either teacher pay raises or SHHS renovations could be approved, specifically gave Hulburd heartburn. He compared the two issues to buying groceries and paying your mortgage.
‘They’re two different things,” Hulburd said. “It should be treated separately … it’s not really the same pot.”
Hulburd said he’d be skeptical if the commission claimed there wasn’t enough money to grant raises and begin work on SHHS.
“I don’t care what they say or do, I won’t believe them,” he said. “These are obligations that need to be done. They need to find a way to get it all done.”
But Shockley said things aren’t as cut and dry as Hulburd believes.
“There is a give and take on this,” he said.
Shockley explained that the commission has to work within the limits of what’s done at the state level. With more and more burden being shifted from Annapolis to Worcester, he stressed that there won’t be as much funding to go around.
“The county has adapted the best they can,” he said.
Another issue impacting funding is property assessments. Between $7 and $10 million revenue to the county is expected to be lost after the Ocean City assessment is finished this year, according to Shockley, while losses could also occur when Berlin and Ocean Pines are re-assessed next year.
Shockley pointed out that all county departments have been dealing with cuts, not just public schools. In fact, he argued that the board has “hardly walked away with a scratch over the last three years” in terms of funding cuts, at least relative to other departments. Shockley also disagreed with Hulburd’s claim that things like teacher pay raises and SHHS renovations come don’t come from the same “pot.”
“There’s only one pot of money,” he said. “That’s it.”
Shockley answered Hulburd’s metaphor of groceries versus mortgage by pointing out that you only get one pay check to pay for both. Hulburd, however, felt that Shockley lumping the raises and renovation into the same category was “an oversimplification” and warned of “smokescreens” going up this budget cycle.
As for the county only receiving one paycheck, Hulburd asserted that if the county didn’t believe that one check was enough to fund both raises and SHHS, it should find ways to increase revenue.