County Schools Struggling To Make Mandated Cuts

NEWARK – With just a month to go before the Worcester County Board of Education must approve its budget request, school staffers still need to make another $1.6 million in cuts to reach a county mandated 3-percent decrease.

The budget cuts discussed at the Tuesday Board of Education meeting varied not a cent from the budget reduction first presented to the school board in January. Staff had promised to look for more cuts in next year’s schools budget, but did not bring more reductions in this week.

Superintendent of Schools Dr. Jon Andes said later that school board staff was waiting on salary talks with teachers, staff, and school bus drivers before disclosing publicly any other cuts.

“We continue to negotiate with our two collective bargaining units and our bus contractors,” Andes said.

Salaries have not been touched so far under the preliminary budget cuts released in January, except for minor reductions in substitute teacher funds and in-service pay.

School board staff has identified $2.6 million in cuts, but must make another $1.6 million in reductions to bring the required lower budget request to the Worcester County Commissioners.

Higher costs expected for utilities, other business costs, and dwindling grants for after-school programs made the task more difficult, staff has said, requiring more money to be cut than just the 3 percent of this year’s operation budget requested, in order to meet the upper limit imposed by county elected officials.

“It’s a work in progress. Obviously we still have work to do,” said Board of Education President Bob Hulburd. “It’s not an easy task.”

Many school expenses come from state or federally mandated programs, said County Commissioner and former Board of Education member Bud Church, and cannot be cut or reduced.

Church said he thinks teachers and staff will be understanding during salary negotiations and are not likely to be asking for increases.

“I think the teachers are going to agree they’re happy to have a job at this point,” Church said, emphasizing that he was speaking as a citizen, not as an elected official.

Some at the meeting seemed to take the mandatory cuts personally. 

“Somebody needs to talk to the County Commissioners,” said school board member Sara Thompson. “They need to think about what they’re doing to us. Not to us, it’s the children they’re hurting.”

“Their entire future depends on what we do now and the next few years,” said school board member Doug Dryden. “It’s easy to lose sight of that when you talk about dollars and cents.”

Maintaining the current level of service would be tough with the required cuts, Hulburd said, calling the task “exceedingly difficult.”

“I do think these cuts are too deep. I do think they will provide damage that’s going to be a long time correcting,” said Helen Schoffstall, representing Worcester County Teachers Association President Terry Springle at the school board meeting. “I’m sorry the commissioners feel they’re necessary … perhaps a second look at how deep the commissioners are making these cuts need to be made.”

Earlier in the meeting, during a presentation on a study of the Worcester County school system, which rated the schools very high, school board members made a point of emphasizing the need to pump money into education in the county.

“It just illustrates the bottom line in very simple terms. There’s been a great bang for the buck,” said Hulburd.

The school system is not just successful, but has been effective and efficient, according to Dr. Dick Walker, assistant superintendent for instruction.

 “We spent our dollar where it counts and that’s in the classroom,” said Walker. “Conversely, when you take the money away from the school system you have to expect the converse effect. You have to accept the consequences.”

Worcester County schools staff members are pursuing other funding options, including a grant to fund middle school after-school programs in science, technology and engineering.

“That additional funding would offset the reductions we anticipate would come from the original grant,” said Andes.

Local schools could also benefit from federal stimulus funds, but those dollars would be restricted to special education and Title I schools with large numbers of students who live at or below poverty line and subsequently receive free and reduce meals at school. Worcester County has three Title I schools, Buckingham Elementary School, Snow Hill Elementary School, and Pocomoke Elementary School.

Those funds would be restricted to certain uses, Andes said, and most likely could not be used to pay for staff or programs already on the books under local funding.

Church suggested that the County Commissioners should stop attempting to control the details of the school board budget as they have in past years and simply assign the schools funding.

“This is what you get, spend it where you want,” Church said of his idea. “We don’t need to micromanage pencils, paper, computers.”

Hulburd said the school board and staff would somehow meet the County Commissioners’ reduction numbers.

“Crunch ‘em, jump up and down on ‘em, whatever we have to do,” he said.