School Board Defends Overrun In Face Of Criticism

NEWARK – While the Worcester County Commissioners claimed that they had not been told about the school system cost overruns at last Tuesday’s meeting, Superintendent of Schools Jon Andes said this week that the commissioners were informed in writing of the excess costs in November and again in the school board budget this spring.

“We sent the County Commissioners a letter in November stating we anticipated these areas would be over budget,” Andes said.

Several commissioners criticized the Board of Education last week for not bringing the need for $385,000 to handle fiscal year 2008 cost overruns to their attention during the budget process.

“We did say something,” Board of Education member Bob Hulburd said.

“We have been extremely transparent in all our relations with the commissioners,” said Board of Education member Jonathan Cook.

The commissioners were informed in the November letter, as required by Maryland state law, and in three separate locations in the Board of Education requested budget. Those line items included a notation that additional dollars could be necessary.

“It says right in the budget, supplemental funding may need to be requested. You don’t know where it’s going to end up,” Hulburd said.

The overruns were also discussed at the April 23 budget presentation session, Andes said.

The May 11 Board of Education meeting included the final overrun cost, $385,000, and Andes was instructed to write a letter to the commissioners alerting them to the cost. The discussion was also included in the Board of Education meeting minutes, which are forwarded to the commissioners’ office.

Andes also attempted to raise the subject of the substantial cost overruns at the May 22 budget workshop, when the commissioners were making final decisions on funding. At several points, said Andes, he raised his hand to clarify or explain an item in the school system budget.

“I was told it was not the time for the Board of Education [to speak],” said Andes. “I was admonished. From that point forward, I didn’t say anything.”

The overruns, stemming from heating and cooling fuel increases, maintenance costs and more services for new special education students, originally reached nearly $1 million. The Board of Education made up about 60 percent through cost cutting in other areas, including the hire of long-term substitutes instead of contracted teachers.

The Board of Education would have asked for even less money, about $265,000, for overruns if the commissioners had not cut $120,000 in requested utility costs in the fiscal year 2008 budget.

“We’ve always been basically underfunded in the utility area,” said Hulburd,

Since 1997, Cook said, the Board of Education has been awarded full utilities funding only four times.

The commissioners did fund a $450,000 utility cost increase requested by the Board of Education for fiscal year 2009.

The school board does not have a reserve fund for contingencies. “We’re going to have to set up a reserve on our own so we have a cushion to take care of it,” Hulburd said.

“Worcester County has created a situation where we have to go and ask for money when we need it,” Andes said.

The Board of Education is not just upset at the apparent mischaracterization of the communication of the costs to the county, but by the way the commissioners behaved during the meeting.

“What I really don’t accept is the way that our superintendent was basically publicly admonished,” said Hulburd. “Don’t go out there and scold employees in front of the public. That was poorly done…we can’t allow our superintendent to be treated like that publicly.”

“We were so taken back,” said Cook. “I only regret that we did not in unison walk up and stand by our superintendent in a show of support.”

Cook called the commissioners’ treatment of Andes “a public flogging.”

The elected Board of Education, not a staff member, should be the focus of any reprimand, Cook said.

“It shouldn’t be us versus them. The fact that we disagree is fine…you can disagree but you don’t have to be disagreeable,” Hulburd said.

 “Before June 17, we thought we were doing a good job [of communicating]. Obviously we’re not,” Cook said. “But communication is a two-way street.”

The school board and the commissioners must get along, Hulburd said, to do the best for the county’s children.

“You can’t have a successful school system if you’ve got a problem and infighting between the leadership,” he said.

The school board is already reaching out to the commissioners to attempt to repair the damaged trust between the two separate entities.

“I’m willing to try anything,” Hulburd said. “We have to be fair and honest with each other, and respectful.”

Trust could be hard to repair, Cook said.

“I think it was premeditated to embarrass. I think it’s done irreparable harm,” Cook said. “I question their level of commitment to education, I really do.”

Hulburd was more sanguine, saying, “I’m positive. I think this is a minor setback,” he said. “[But] we need to let them know that we can’t be handled that way.”