Board Worried Cuts Will Lead To ‘Race To Bottom’

NEWARK — The Worcester County Board of Education got its first official look at a streamlined fiscal year 2013 budget, and with additional cuts to 148 of the 149 line items, voiced concern the spending plan could signal the beginning of a “race to the bottom.”

The public school fiscal year 2013 operating budget includes expenditures of roughly $93 million. In Worcester, about $73 million, or nearly 80 percent, of the school board’s operating budget comes directly from the county. With the county anticipating over $3 million less in property tax revenue, just maintaining the status quo for the proposed school board budget will clearly be a challenge.

Roughly $3.2 million has been cut from the school board’s operating budget over the last three years as the economy remains stagnant and the proposed fiscal year 2013 spending plan includes an additional $681,000 in cuts. Making matters worse is an anticipated increase in fixed costs, such as utilities and student transportation, for example, of nearly $1.4 million. As a result, an additional $675,000 will have to be found on the revenue side or through additional cuts just to maintain existing staff, student programs and services.

During a week when yet another Worcester school was named a state Blue Ribbon school and the county was recognized as the top public school system in a state ranked first in the nation, the proposed budget was met with gloom and doom by a school board striving to maintain the county’s lofty status.

“It’s obvious to me this is a very lean budget, yet Worcester County is the top performing school in Maryland and Maryland is number one in the nation,” said Board of Education member Doug Dryden. “If there was ever an example of doing more with less, this is it. I just don’t know how long we’re going to be able to sustain that.”

With unfunded state and federal mandates for continued success, such as the “Race to the Top” initiative and a proposed overhaul in the statewide curriculum, finding the money just to maintain that success represents a considerable challenge.

“In an industry that prides itself on slogans like ‘Race to the Top,’ I don’t think anyone at this table, or in this county, is interested in a race to the bottom,” said newly elected Board of Education President Bob Rothermel.

Worcester County Schools Chief Financial Officer Vince Tolbert told school board officials the proposed budget does not include expenditures related to mandated changes such as the Race to the Top program. Even without those anticipated expenses, the budget includes significant reductions to the prior spending plan.

“We’re going the wrong way,” he said. “When the new curriculum comes out, that’s going to cost around $1.5 million just for reading. The Race to the Top is going to cost around $5 million to implement.”

Much of the budget is devoted to teacher and staff salaries, which have not been increased in three-plus years. With the gap in expected revenue and anticipated expenditures widening, there will likely be no room in the proposed budget for salary increases.

“Salary negotiations are ongoing,” said Tolbert. “As you know, there is no money for salary increases at this time. You can see there is a lot of red on this chart. We’ve taken about $1.1 million out of salaries in the last three years.”

All phases of the budget have been cut to bare bones in recent years, according to school board officials, including the materials of instruction, which have been cut by an average of around 28 percent in the proposed 2013 budget.

“Instructional costs, including textbooks and classroom supplies, are back to 2005 levels,” Tolbert said. “That’s very concerning to me. In terms of technology, six years ago we had almost $1 million in that line item and now we’re down to $200,000. That’s another area of big concern.”

Above all else, school board officials voiced concerns additional cuts are starting to compromise the success of the county’s public school system.

“The key word in all of this is competitive,” said Board member Jonathan Cook. “With any benchmark you want to use, this county has done a phenomenal job. I don’t think we want to take a step back from that. It’s a business strategy. If you’re standing still, you’re moving backwards.”

For that reason, this could be a year for the board to take a stand on additional cuts, according to Board member Bob Hulburd.

“How long can we keep pecking away at it and maintain what we do?,” said Hulburd. “This is a year we can’t agree to take less. We need to not only maintain the status quo, but get a little bit more.”

Superintendent Dr. Jon Andes said the proposed spending plan represents more than numbers in a ledger.

“A budget is just lines and numbers, but it really reflects what we value as a community,” said Andes. “The decisions we make today will impact students for a long time.”

Andes acknowledged the challenges, but voiced concern about the symbolic bottom line.

“What saddens me is we’re talking about a budget that meets the needs,” he said. “We should be talking about what exceeds the needs of our kids.”

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