County Reluctant To Fund $385K In School Overruns

SNOW HILL – Several County Commissioners strongly criticized county school officials this week for asking for a substantial sum to cover overruns from the 2007-2008 school year, less than a month after the commissioners finished the county budget.

The commissioners grudgingly voted 4-2 to pay the $385,000 overage incurred by the Worcester County public school system in fiscal year 2008.

“We came up just a little short,” said Board of Education President Gary Mumford. “We’re asking the County Commissioners to assist us in paying for those expenditures…we’ve worked since January to cut. We just didn’t quite make it all the way.”

Unexpected fuel cost increases, school maintenance and additional services for special education students put the Worcester County schools $991,000 over budget total, but school officials found over $600,000 in savings to offset part of the costs.

Fuel oil, propane and electricity have gone up 30 to 40 percent, said Superintendent of Schools Dr. Jon Andes.

“We have a budget. We worked through a budget and on the 22nd [of May] when we were doing that, that day you were sitting right there at a table, Dr. Andes. At any point during the deliberation – you had to know these numbers – all you had to say was, we’ve done the best we could, we’re going to be short,” said County Commission President Virgil Shockley. “Not one of us would have blamed you, but you let us adopt a budget…I guess I expect to be told accurate, truthful information.”

Shockley said he was not upset by the cost overruns, but by the lack of communication from the Worcester County Board of Education, which has known about the excessive costs since January, well before the budget process began.

“If we had known, not one of us up here would have voted the way we did,” Shockley said. “We’d have voted and you’d have had the money.”

No other department in the county comes back for more money like the school board does, said Commissioner Judy Boggs.

“In the past nine to 10 years, the Board of Education has come back to the county and asked for more money over and above,” said Boggs. “I would have really voted differently on our budget if I had known specifically an itemization of the extra things you would need.”

Boggs questioned why the school board did not make better estimates of costs.

The schools cannot control the cost of heating and cooling or the number of children who enroll in the system, said Andes. A handicapped student who moves into the county in the middle of the school year might need services, like a private duty nurse, that are not in the budget, he said.

“It’s medically necessary and we must do it because it’s in the best interest of the child,” Andes said. “Whatever the needs of those students, we should be about the business of providing them. If we don’t, shame on us.”

If the commissioners had known about the over-budget costs, the money could have been included in the fiscal year 2009 budget just passed, Boggs said.

“Even though I want to say ‘no’ to you this morning, I cannot do that because it’s about our children,” said Commissioner Louise Gulyas. “I beg you that next year, when it’s time to do the budget, you are paying attention and save some money for overruns … It’s the hardest thing to sit up here and kind of disagree with you.”

Commissioner Linda Busick spoke along the same lines.

“When we ask for bottom line figures, we really need to know that bottom line figure before we close the budget,” said Busick.

Commissioner Bud Church, a 10-year veteran of the school board before his election to county office, defended the Board of Education, noting that the original overrun was reduced by over half through cost cutting measures. No one could anticipate the meteoric rise in heating and cooling costs, Church said.

Other county departments did, said Boggs.

“We have to work on the system, but we need to cure the problem right now,” said Church.

“We’re doing it for the kids of the county,” said Commissioner Jim Purnell. “I’m going to support their request.”

“This is not going to happen again,” Shockley declared. “You will not have my vote next year, I’m going to tell you. You will not have it.”

The vote to appropriate money to pay the school overruns was 4-2, with Boggs and Busick voting against. Commissioner Bobby Cowger was absent.

The money will come from the new Worcester County State’s Attorney building project, $185,000, and the county jail expansion, $200,000. These projects will not be ready for funding for 12 months.

State’s Attorney Joel Todd, attending the commissioner meeting on another subject, wondered if he would get the new building as planned to replace the cramped quarters his department is now housed in.

“You’re fine,” said Shockley, assuring Todd that the work would not be delayed.