SNOW HILL — For the first time in three years, the Worcester County Board of Education is requesting a raise for employees. It’s also asking the Worcester County Commissioners to match the amount of funding given last year in addition to the pay increase. The total proposed budget for fiscal year 2013 is $93.3 million, $1.9 million or 2.5 percent higher than fiscal year 2012.
“The FY2013 Proposed Operating Budget that we will submit to County Commissioners in February is a modest budget that reflects the continued economic challenges of our county,” said Board President Bob Rothermel.
While the plan is close to last year’s, it shows signs of optimism absent from the previous three budgets. Since the national economic nosedive in 2008, schools in Worcester have been cutting back or at least standing still in almost every category. All salaries have been frozen and 34 positions have been phased out through attrition, meaning once the employee leaves or retires they aren’t replaced.
“This has been a very trying time … We have shrunk the size of our system to meet the needs and demands the economy has required of us,” said Rothermel.
Rothermel drew attention to the fact that budgets have steadily decreased since the downturn and the money that is available has often been shuffled around to be as effective as possible.
“Since FY2009, the school system has reduced and realigned $3.2 million due to Maintenance of Effort funding from the county, coupled with rising fixed costs,” said Rothermel.
Maintenance of Effort (MoE) funding means that schools are given enough money to allow them to provide the same level of service from the year before. MoE is based on a per-student formula. However, Chief Financial Officer Vince Tolbert explained that MoE funding isn’t the same as level funding, which is what the BoE is requesting this year.
“Level funding seeks the same amount of county funding for the next fiscal year (FY 2013), as the school system has in this fiscal year,” said Tolbert. “Level funding, however, is not Maintenance of Effort, which fluctuates based on student enrollments.”
With 56 less students enrolled in the next fiscal year compared to last, MoE funding would be cut considerably.
“Even though the slight drop in our student population equates to an average of only four less students per school, Maintenance of Effort funding would yield an $851,000 reduction in county funding for FY 2013,” said Tolbert.
He warned that if the school system only receives MoE, up to 32 more positions would be put in jeopardy, as would multiple programs, services and supplies. Tolbert added that class sizes would probably increase and employees would go a fourth year with no kind of pay raise.
Currently, Worcester is ranked 15th out of 24 in terms of starting teacher salaries in Maryland, down from 11th in 2008. Assistant Superintendent for Instruction Dr. John Gaddis asserted that if the ball doesn’t begin to roll again allowing employees to advance, Worcester will risk losing the most talented educators, administrators and staff to other areas.
“While other counties are providing pay raises to school system employees, ours has not,” he said.
Superintendent of Schools Jon Andes agreed.
“A modest pay raise will begin to restore what has been lost, but it cannot begin to adequately thank our staff,” said Andes, who will retire this summer. “Whether you look at assessment scores, accreditation, graduation rates, transportation service, Blue Ribbon Schools, or any number of factors, we are at the top in the state, and this distinction did not happen by chance. It did not happen without sacrifice.”
If accepted, this budget would grant employees still working through their step scale an average raise of $1,500. For those who have already exceeded the standard 10 steps, the raise would be roughly 1.5 percent. Bus contractors are also being earmarked for a 1.5-percent increase to contract rates.
Gaddis also highlighted the additional pressures and requirements from state and federal levels as justification for the budget, with the costs of the new programs usually falling largely to the county. Initiatives like Race to the Top and the new Common Core will necessitate new and expensive changes to the classroom.
“We estimate that it will cost approximately $100,000 per grade level to implement the new curriculum, which includes textbooks, per subject area,” he reported.
According to Gaddis, the school board is also running “on a bare bones level” for technology, at $200,000 per year. With more and more testing and education going digital and heading online, he stressed the need for the school system to stay modern.
After hearing the budget outlined, Andes made it clear that he saw funding above MoE this year as a necessary investment for Worcester.
“The litmus test for finding valuable investments is knowing which ones generate the greatest returns,” he said. “Our children and teachers are at the top of the list; an investment in them is an investment in our community. Our schools matter. It is as complex and simple as that.”