SALISBURY — A new James M. Bennett Middle School (BMS) and lack of community involvement in schools were the major talking points during last week’s budget public input session.
“Tonight, we’re here to listen,” said Board of Education President Ron Willey.
He made it clear from the beginning that schools would be in a tough spot in 2012.
“We’re looking at additional cuts in our budget this year,” he told the audience.
Superintendent of Schools Dr. John Fredrickson concurred, explaining that schools are “dealing with some difficult financial storm issues” and looking for solutions. He did note, however, that a few possibilities had already been taken off the table for being too impractical, including changing schools to a four-day week or further cuts to teacher salaries.
The majority of speakers at the meeting were vocal in setting priorities for the school board with building a new BMS at the top of the list.
“Excellent schools attract excellent teachers,” argued Kim Hudson, who represented the recently formed Parents in Action (PIA) group.
According to Hudson, her group, comprised of the parents of students in the Wicomico County public school system, is “advocating education as a priority.” In order to achieve that, Hudson said that she is willing to accept a 7-cent increase to the property tax rate this year, which is as much as Wicomico’s revenue cap would allow, as long as that money is earmarked towards a new BMS.
Her fellow PIA member Lauralyn Geiser echoed the statement and stressed that the current, decades old BMS building is inadequate compared to other schools in Wicomico and neighboring counties.
“We are not discussing a luxury or an extra,” she said. “This is the foundation for their entire future … other counties are making education a priority.”
It was hypocritical, continued Geiser, to ask students to “strive for the best” when parents, educators and officials in Wicomico are not able to provide them the tools to do so.
“Our children deserve better,” she said.
There was a lot of support for a new BMS at the input session, even if it meant an increase to taxes.
“I feel the biggest value for my tax dollar is education,” said parent Rick Sullivan.
Noting that education has fallen from about half the county budget a decade ago to just slightly over a third today, Sullivan encouraged the Board of Education to “pursue a bigger piece of the pie” this budget season.
Support for a new BMS was not unanimous, however. Wicomico Republican Central Committee member Joe Collins called the new school activists “poorly aimed.”
“Should we really be spending money on a new school if we’re in this dire a strait?” he asked.
Collins was also incredulous of the idea that residents were willing to pay more in taxes to finance BMS.
“They asked to have their taxes raised,” he said, exasperated.
Collins stressed that there is a need for everyone to come together across what he perceives to be a political divide to form new ideas. He also advised pushing for a fully-elected school board, instead of the current appointed system.
“It is the first step in returning the balance of control to parents and students,” said Collins.
Resident G.A. Harrison also questioned how realistic it would be to fund a new school. Harrison was dismissive of Sullivan’s idea to pursue a larger percentage of funding from the county this year on the grounds that the Wicomico budget is already stretched thin at every point, not just education.
Instead, Harrison suggested the board look to tighten its own spending to squeeze more value out of every dollar.
“The board does waste money … I want to see the maximum number of dollars going to the classroom,” he said.
Dave White, president of the Wicomico County Education Association, commented that, though he was a Republican like Collins, he did feel that a new BMS is a top priority.
“I do believe we need a new school in this county,” said White.
He also pointed out that Wicomico has slipped and is now ranked 23 out of 24 counties in Maryland in per student spending as well as 21 out of 24 in teacher salaries.
“The past four years have been a nightmare for this county … we cannot continue down the current path,” he said.
While opinions did vary on what the board should prioritize this coming year, everyone seemed to agree that what would benefit Wicomico schools the most would be increased participation from the community.
After hearing that only four speakers from the public wished to comment during the session, Willey remarked that he “would rather it be 400.” Though more residents decided to comment as the meeting progressed, the overall turnout frustrated some.
“Please start attending these meetings,” said Geiser, addressing the Wicomico community at large.
According to Willey, it’s up to residents to become active if they want to see schools in the area prosper.
“This is a public school system,” he said. “That means the schools belong to you.”