SNOW HILL — In anticipation of a difficult budget season, Superintendent of Schools Dr. Jon Andes appealed to the Worcester County Commissioners this week to draft a fiscal year 2013 budget where all county employees receive a raise, the first in three years.
“I’m asking you, pleading with you, begging you to find some way, somehow, to give all employees a pay raise,” Andes told the commission Tuesday.
The remark came at the tail end of Andes’ defense of the next fiscal year’s proposed Board of Education budget. For FY2013, the board is asking for level funding from last year as well as a slight pay raise for staff, which they averaged out to be about a 1.5-percent bump in salaries for most teachers and staff. Overall, the board is requesting $1.9 million or 2.5 percent more in funding this year than in fiscal year 2012.
Unfortunately, there’s even less money available this year for Worcester at large due to falling property values, and therefore, tax dollars.
“We’re $10 million short,” said Commissioner Madison Bunting.
Andes acknowledged the difficulties the commission faced in building a budget this year, but maintained that officials needed to find a way to break the limbo employee salaries have been in since the economic downturn.
“It’s the people that make the difference,” he said.
While Andes was campaigning specifically for teacher and faculty raises, they traditionally only receive an increase when every county employee does. According to Andes, that is fair and is why he wants to see the commission give every county employee a slight raise.
Commission President Bud Church asked Andes about a rumor he had heard that teachers were paying for supplies and materials for the classroom personally due to lack of funding in the school budget.
Andes confirmed what Church heard was true.
“We’re finding it more and more common that teachers and staff are reaching into their own pockets to pay for supplies for the classroom,” Andes said.
Andes, who will retire this summer, added that schools have been tightening belts across the board, despite what some might think.
“I know that sometimes there’s a question if we actually cut,” Andes said.
Funding for everything from materials to technology has been reduced, according to Andes. While a few categories like special education have seen slight increases, those were all mandatory requirements passed down from the state.
“The only places we’ve increased are in places we’ve had to,” Andes said.
Still on the subject of state requirements, Andes bashed the General Assembly for weakening teacher pension funds to the point where the burden may soon be dropped in part or in full into the laps of individual counties.
“The state created this problem,” he told the commission.
According to Andes, it all began years ago when then Governor Parris Glendening began to use “corridor funding” to manage the teacher pension fund. Corridor funding, he went on to say, did not fully meet what the state promised it would pay.
“The state never fulfilled its obligation,” Andes said.
He added that the practice has continued all the way to current Gov. Martin O’Malley.
Commissioner Judy Boggs agreed that Annapolis has not been handling pension funds responsibly.
“The state has acknowledged that it’s not sustainable,” she said.
But even with revenue down and teacher pension costs lurking in the background, Andes remained optimistic that the commission could and would find a way to make the proposed school system budget a reality.
“Without your support, without the county support, we can’t do what we need to do,” he said. “Period.”
Church was a bit more pragmatic about the rough process ahead.
“We’re going to get through this,” he said.
Boggs underlined that, whether or not the commission can give the board everything it wants this year, schools have been and always will be important to Worcester.
“Education has always been a top priority for this board of commissioners,” she told Andes.
Though a decision on whether to construct a new Snow Hill High School (SHHS) is still months away, discussion on it did make a cameo appearance during Tuesday’s budget work session.
After Bunting pointed out that the commissioners have earmarked the revenue the county receives from the slots at the Casino at Ocean Downs to building a new SHHS, Board of Education member Bob Hulburd publically thanked the commission for being committed to the project, which was delayed last year due to lack of funding.
“It hurts me to see Snow Hill High School the way it is today,” said Hulburd, a former SHHS graduate.
Thought Bunting’s comments were not a concrete indication SHSS would be funded, Hulburd, like Andes, seemed prepared to err on the side of optimism.