Friday, December 19–School Board Estimates $4.5M In Budget Cuts

NEWARK – Rising costs and a mandatory budget cut, which equals a 6-percent cutback in the schools budget, will significantly affect education in Worcester County, the Worcester County Board of Education emphasized in a brief discussion of the budget at its meeting Tuesday.

“We have to cut around $4.5 million from our ’09 operating budget. Cuts of that magnitude will result in an impact on our programs and staff,” said Board of Education Chief Financial Officer Vince Tolbert at Tuesday’s school board meeting. “We’re not just talking about 3 percent, we’re talking about more like 6 percent.”

Earlier this fall, the County Commissioners instructed county departments and the Board of Education that budget requests for the next fiscal year must be 3 percent less than their current operating budgets.

The Worcester County Board of Education heard budget requests from individual schools earlier this month, with the meeting this week serving as their first preliminary budget discussion. The school board instructed the schools to keep their requests to the minimum.

“It’s a tough mission,” said Board President Gary Mumford. “We’ve started to look for items to possibly cut. We haven’t made any decisions.”

Superintendent of Schools Dr. Jon Andes reminded those at the meeting that education is a service industry and that 88 percent of the school system’s budget is people-related.

“Any significant reduction in funding will impact programs and people and considerably impact services to our children,” Andes said.

“That doesn’t leave much non-program items to look at,” said Board member Jonathan Cook.

Tolbert estimated further that up to 95 percent of the budget is spent on staff and bus transportation.

“There is very little room to make these kinds of reductions without affecting programs and people,” Tolbert said.

This year’s budget includes $2.1 million for classroom materials.

“If we don’t buy one thing next year, that gets us only halfway to $4.5 million,” said Tolbert.

Making such a drastic cut is practically impossible, added Tolbert. The school board cannot mandate that the schools not buy any paper at all next year, for example.

Ed Barber, assistant superintendent for administration, pointed out that education is also a business, and that there are a multitude of fixed costs, from mandatory audits to trash service to energy costs.

“There’s really not much room for change unless you look at programs,” Barber said.

The Worcester County school system needs to explore every opportunity to save and be as prudent as it can, said Board Vice President Bob Hulburd.

However, Hulburd cautioned, “It’s an investment in the future of our county, and investment in the future of our kids.”

If programs are affected, then the county is going to have further problems down the road. Hulburd suggested phasing-in the cuts.

“We need to all sit down and explore exactly what the impacts would be of all these cuts,” Hulburd said. “There’s probably no way to maintain what we have … I think it’s imperative we continue to fight for what we believe in.”

Numerous unfounded state and federal mandates must be recognized, Cook said.  “Those mandates don’t go away,” he said.

The high school assessment requirement is a good example of that, Hulburd said. “As far as I know, not a dime extra is coming from the state to fund that,” he said.

“Maintain” was the watchword for the Board of Education’s budget goals, which are developed through the extensive parent survey and used to create the school system’s line item budget.

The seven goals are to maintain small class sizes; hire and keep highly qualified teachers and staff; maintain student access to up to date technology; maintain safe and clean buildings, and adequate playgrounds and sports fields; provide materials and books to support instruction; and ongoing training for employees to improve instruction.

The goals are the same as last year, Andes pointed out, except that the term “maintain” has been added.

“No growth, simply maintain,” Andes said.

The Board of Education will begin discussion of the line item budget at the Jan. 20, 2009 meeting, Andes said.

“We can’t sustain cuts as large as we’re hearing about today without a significant impact on the quality of our instructional programs. People need to be braced for that,” said Dr. Dick Walker, assistant superintendent for instruction