School Board Examines $2.6M In Proposed Cuts

NEWARK – No field trips, fewer athletic competitions and scaled-down commencement exercises next year are all part of a preliminary school budget cuts that still leave the Worcester County school board with another $1.6 million to trim.

The County Commissioners made some waves late last year when they instructed all county-funded departments to cut their budget requests for the next fiscal year by 3 percent from their operating budgets this year.

“The direction we received was to make cuts or reductions in everything but do not touch people,” said Worcester County Superintendent of Schools Dr. Jon Andes.

At this week’s school board meeting, Worcester County Board of Education staff presented $2.6 million in potential cuts, but those reductions will not be enough. Another $1.6 million in cuts must be made to meet the county mandate.

Budget reductions will have a detrimental impact on Worcester County schools, the Board of Education said.

“These cuts that we are looking at, if these cuts have to occur, we have to be prepared for substantial negative impact in student achievement,” said Dr. Dick Walker, assistant superintendent for instruction.

“We’re No. 1 in the state. This is going to launch us for a loop. This is unreal we have to do this,” said Board of Education member Sara Thompson.

“These are going to be hard things to understand, and we still came up $1.6 million short,” said school board member Doug Dryden.

The operating budget for the current school year is roughly $88.5 million, with $79 million of that paying staff salaries and costs.

“There’s just not a lot of extra fat to trim,” said Board President Bob Hulburd. “We’re already lean.”

The goal, to cut 3 percent from the current operating budget, might not be realistic, he said.

The school board will make an effort to have a serious conversation with the County Commissioners to make sure they understand the impacts, according to Hulburd.

With substantial dollars still to reduce, staff and teachers might be affected in the next round of cuts.

“The next step would be furloughs or lay-offs,” Andes said.

One furlough day would save the school system $320,000, he said.

The school system is “delaying, deferring, postponing, or eliminating,” some expenses, Andes told the board Tuesday afternoon. “All of these choices are not very good choices.”

The cuts identified so far strike mainly at instructional materials and supplies, with a 53-percent reduction equaling $547,000 less than the current operating budget line item. Textbook funding would drop by 54 percent, or $311,000, while library books would drop by 53 percent, or $129,000. Special education instructional materials would be reduced by 48 percent, or $50,000.

The school board discussed the proposed cuts extensively on Tuesday, from hiring to maintenance.

While the school board has frozen additional positions, existing teaching positions that fall vacant must be filled.

“We need high quality teachers, so we need to recruit,” said Thompson.

Budget cuts as proposed mean that only in-state recruitment will be funded, with little for advertising, Andes said.

Vacant teaching positions could be filled through moving teachers from one school to another, rather than bringing in a new hire. Retired teachers or staff might not be replaced, if the position is not crucial, Andes said.

Preparing students for the new Maryland High School Assessments, a graduation requirement for the first time this spring, takes an enormous amount of resources, particularly in teaching time, said Walker, which will be affected by cuts in professional and in-service development for teachers.

“There’s never any costs absorbed by the state,” said Walker.

Student activities will see some changes. School-funded field trips would be canceled entirely.

“If a teacher wants to go on a field trip they think is valuable, they can’t do it,” Andes said.

Funding for commencement exercises at the high schools has been reduced, which could leave high schools scrambling to find space to hold graduation. Stephen Decatur High School has customarily used the Ocean City Convention Center for commencement exercises because the school auditorium is too small, but would have to make different arrangements under a reduced budget.

Athletic teams and marching bands will need to be more selective about competitions and events as well.

The technology line item will be reduced to just $200,000, which will purchase nothing new. The money will be used to pay software license fees and for required upgrades.

In the last two budget years, the school board has asked for a total of $2 million for technological upgrades, but has received only $900,000, said Hulburd.

“These areas have been underfunded for the last couple of years anyway,” Hulburd said.

Bus runs could combine schools or grade levels or double up on the route to save money. This has been done in the north of the county, Andes said, but now Ocean Pines buses are becoming too crowded.

“We really should be adding bus contracts in the northern county,” Andes said.

Some costs are not negotiable. The school system must pay for Internet access, energy costs, garbage pick-up, and other necessary services with prices outside the system’s control. 

Some of those bills are expected to go up, Andes said, such as telephone service and utility costs. School board staff has assigned a 10-percent increase for energy costs.

Essential maintenance will be done, but some schools, like Berlin Intermediate School, are 40 years old, and are already a challenge to keep in operating condition, Andes said.

“This year we are requesting $200,000 simply to keep things going,” said Andes.

The Worcester County schools already spend less on maintenance than 22 other schools districts in Maryland, it was reported

Staff is fighting to preserve Worcester’s highly praised after-school and summer programs.

The budget presented this week retains after-school and summer school programs with no reductions, going so far as to pick up the tab for closed grants, which have been funding the initiatives.

“It’s not to expand any of the programs. It’s simply to make up the difference,” said Andes.

The school board and staff have two months to work out the further cuts required by the County Commissioners.

At the February Board of Education meeting, on Feb. 17, Andes will recommend a budget to the school board. In early March, the school board will hold a budget work session, with final adoption of the budget at the March 17 board meeting.

“The point’s got to be made that if you look at the amount of the total budget and if you look at how much is spent on programs and materials of instruction and textbooks and so on and so forth there’s not much room to take away until you start impacting people and jobs,” Hulburd said.

Slashing costs from the budget could have long-term impacts, some feared.

“We may never get the money back or never get back to where we need to be,” said board member Gary Mumford.

In the past, programs cut for economic reasons were never resurrected, he said.

“We can’t afford to take any steps backward,” Dryden said.

Making the changes will take time, according to Hulburd, who suggested a phased reduction.

“You don’t turn an ocean liner around on a dime,” he said. “You’ve got to be careful you’re not sinking the ship.”