Mandated Spending Cut Worries County Schools

NEWARK – The 3-percent budget cut mandated by the Worcester County Commissioners could harm education in the local school system, Superintendent of Schools Dr. Jon Andes said the week after the cuts were announced.

“The reduction will impact the quality of our schools and school system,” Andes said.

Board of Education member Bob Hulburd echoed Andes’ sentiment, saying, “There’s going to be some tough times. I don’t know yet exactly what we’re going to be able to do about it.”

Last week, the County Commissioners issued an edict to county departments and the school board limiting budget requests for the next fiscal year to 3-percent less than the current operating budgets.

Worcester County schools currently get $75.9 million of their operating budget from the county government. A 3-percent reduction would subtract $2.2 million from that number, reducing it to $73.7 million.

According to Andes, the cut request from the commissioners comes at a time when the school system is also projecting a large increase in the basic cost of running the school system, from utilities and trash hauling to telephone and Internet service.

“The additional cost of doing business next year will be $2 million. That’s our estimate,” said Andes.

With the loss of $2.2 million, and the need to accommodate a probable $2 million increase in the cost of basic services, the school system will have to make some hard decisions.

“It will make it very challenging to try to sustain high quality educational services for our students,” Andes said.

There is no obvious place to make cuts, Andes said.

“This will really impact some quality programs,” said Hulburd. “There’s not a lot of fluff anyway.”

The 14 Worcester County schools will not present their budget requests to the Board of Education until Dec. 2. The next Board of Education meeting will be held Dec. 16. The school board will begin discussing cuts then.

“We will be having some in-depth conversations about it. This goes beyond just trying to stay where we were,” said Hulburd. “We had a goal to stay where we were.”

The Board of Education will have to pick and choose and protect the most valuable programs, Hulburd said.

“We’ve got to sit down and look at the details. We may have to come back to [the commissioners] and say, do you realize what would have to be done?” Hulburd said. “We’re going to take a hard look at everything. Everything’s on the table.”

While Andes could not detail any possible cuts this week, some areas could be less likely to see cuts than others.

“We would do anything we possibly could to sustain our class sizes,” Andes said. “I believe the high level of success our school system enjoys is due to our class sizes.”

That means keeping enough teachers to keep class sizes small. The number one goal is to protect the school system’s employees, Hulburd felt.

“Our priority is the employees. That’s what allows us to be effective for the kids,” he said.

While the County Commissioners have decreed that county employees will not be getting raises this year, the school board must negotiate contracts with teachers and support personnel.

“Every year we collectively bargain the contract [with the teachers union],” Andes said.

The process starts in December, and negotiations can take up to three months, according to Andes.

Grant-funded programs that have come to the end of their funding this year could also face some challenges. The commissioners have said in strong terms that they will not be picking up expired grants during this budget session. Many after-school and summer school programs in the county are still grant-funded, and the fourth and fifth grade after-school programs are coming due this year, with grant funding no longer available. “That’s a challenge for us,” Andes said.

To fund those programs within the budget constraints, the Board of Education will have to shift the funding from another program.

Hulburd said he is also concerned that education funding from the State of Maryland could also be cut. Revenue levels can only be projected now. Actual funding numbers will not be available until after the first of the year and in some cases much later.

The Board of Education and County Commissioners have had some bitter disagreements in the past year over money and communications between the two entities. Hulburd said he appreciated that the commissioners have been upfront about the need for cuts early on.

“Our board wants to be team players. We want to work within the restrictions we’re all facing,” Hulburd said. “We do have to face the reality, and the commissioners are passing that reality on to us.”