SALISBURY – A public hearing held on County Executive Rick Pollitt’s proposed 2012-2013 operating budget turned into an outlet for members of the education community to speak out on the lack of funding dedicated to the Board of Education.
A nearly empty room at the Wicomico Civic Center turned into standing room only as a long line of educational employees, parents, students, and future students of Wicomico County filed into the room to show support to have the Board of Education’s budget increased in the upcoming year’s operating budget.
The school system’s operating budget requests about $36.9 million, which reflects a 2-percent increase over last year’s budget. According to Pollitt, the associated $723,938 requested increase is $517,830 above the $206,108 Maintenance of Effort (MoE) requirement under state law.
The proposed operating budget includes an increase in property tax. The real assessable base decreased 6.9 percent from Fiscal Year (FY) 12 to FY13. In order to generate the same amount of revenue as last year, the tax rate needs to increase by 5.49 cents. The current property tax rate is 76.9 cents per $100 of assessed valuation and the increase would come to 82.39 cents, which is constant yield.
According to Pollitt, in order for the county to fund education, services, maintain facilities and renew capital infrastructure, he is proposing to increase the property tax rate above the constant yield by the rate allowed by the revenue cap, an additional 1.65 cents, which would bring it to 84.04 cents.
Many in the room on Tuesday night represented the Wicomico County Education Association. Their main message is that education funding in the county continues to drop every year. From 2010 to 2012, funding has decreased by 30 percent, placing Wicomico Count 23rd out 24 school systems in Maryland for school funding.
On May 30, the Wicomico County Education Association held a press conference presenting the results of an external audit demonstrating that the county is capable of providing the school board with additional funding without raising property taxes or effecting any other departments funding. The association has requested that the County Council raise the Board of Education budget for FY13 to $38.7 million from $36.9 million, which is $2.5 million over what is required by law.
County Council Administrator Matt Creamer read through the budget line by line and saved the Board of Education funding for last knowing the majority of speakers were present to address it.
First up was Dave White, president of the Wicomico County Teachers Association.
“Tonight you are going to hear from many people that live in Wicomico County telling you why schools matter,” White said, but asked the council if schools really did matter if $14.5 million had been cut from educational funding in the last two years, or if Wicomico County ranked 23rd out of 24 school systems in the state, or 22nd out of 24 systems for teachers’ salaries.
“Many of you may say that the education employees that are here, and parents are here, and students are here, are self-serving, and I am going to say ‘you are absolutely right’ because we have been serving the students and the people of this county for many, many years,” White said.
He asked if the council thought educational employees were self-serving when they give students their own lunch because they didn’t have dinner the night before, pay for a student’s lunch for the third time in a week, wait with a student when their parents forget to pick them up or buy paper, pens, crayons and notebooks.
“Above all, we are self-serving because we are doing what we can to keep Wicomico County great because it is our home and our future,” White said.
Wicomico County resident Kelly Stevenson spoke about the importance of attracting or retaining quality school personnel.
“Neighboring counties are rapidly stealing away our highly respected and qualified teachers, administrators, and other educational support staff,” Stevenson said. “There are record numbers of these employees who are unwilling to continue their careers in Wicomico County. They are moving to other counties around the state that see education as a high priority and are ensuring a good future for community.”
Stevenson furthered that the County Council is sending an unclear message in the last few years on how they rank education.
“Education is not a high priority,” she said. “Wicomico County is ranked 23rd out of 24 counties in school funding, which is embarrassment to our community and the people who have worked hard to ensure that our students have a good education…do the right thing. Fund our schools the way they deserve to be funded so our children can have a chance at a fair future.”
Wicomico Superintendent of Schools John Fredericksen spoke on behalf of 3,000 staff members, 12,000 families and 14,600 students when he asked the council to give emotional support for the kids, give financial support for the schools, long-term funding for Bennett Middle School and support the School Construction Saving Program to put dollars into the county’s educational infrastructure.
“We have got to restore our community, we have got to work together, we have got to support our families, we have got to build our infrastructure to attract the good jobs and the families that we want in our community,” he said. “We as a school system are ready to help build our county.”
Board of Education member Carolyn Elmore spoke on behalf of the board. She said the Board of Education supports all other budget line items, such as public safety, recreation, and programs like Meals on Wheels.
“We are a caring community,” Elmore said. “We also believe that the vast majority of citizens in Wicomico County want a quality school system and that is why I stand here.”
At a meeting on Wednesday, the County Council preliminary agreed to give the Board of Education’s budget a boost of $80,000 to be spent on classroom supplies.
The final budget, which is expected to also, which also includes a 2-percent pay raise for all county employees, will head for a final vote on Monday.