Mandated Cuts Called Way To Move Schools ‘Backward’

NEWARK – Cuts to next year’s school budget will send Worcester County schools “backward,” several Board of Education members said this week during a budget work session, in which staff confirmed that another $1.6 million in cuts still needed to be made.

“We’re going backward, not forward,” said Sara Thompson, a member of the Worcester County Board of Education. “To tell us to make these cuts we’ve had to make is undermining what we’ve accomplished and what made us a good school system.”

The Worcester County budget should not be balanced “on the backs of schoolchildren,” board  member Doug Dryden said.

“I don’t think this is fair to the children of the county,” said Dryden. “They don’t have anything to do with the depressed housing market or the declining tax base.”

Other members indicated that they felt asking the school system to meet the across-the-board 3-percent cut was unfair.

The county’s planning and zoning department could cut more than 3 percent, Board of Education President Bob Hulburd said, since building in the county has plummeted in recent years. The planning department budget is supplemented by fees paid by developers, which funds some of the work.

Other county departments do not have to pay for fuel, electricity and other fixed costs out of their budgets, Thompson said. “It’s not apples to apples,” she said.

Hulburd contended that no other county in Maryland has asked for similar cuts to school budgets.

“Pretty much every county is maintaining what they were last year,” Hulburd said. “We’re like the exception.”

It was pointed out the Board of Education struck out at the delayed school renovations at Snow Hill High School and Showell Elementary School. The commissioners decided to push back the multi-million dollar near-future projects this fall in light of the troubled economy.

School construction and renovation bills are paid through county bonds and a small amount of state money. Those projects do not come out of the Board of Education budget.

The Pocomoke High School renovation, a $35 million project, continues.

“The Snow Hill community’s going to be, ‘where’s ours?’” Hulburd said.

“It’s not our fault,” said Thompson.

The board also lamented cutting money from school technology, much of which is several years old, according to Hulburd. “We’re going backward,” Hulburd said. “That’s pretty pathetic.”

“I think it’s a travesty,” said Dryden.

Other county school systems will get ahead of Worcester County education because they do not have to make cuts, Thompson said.

“I don’t understand why they’re balancing the budget on the backs of the young people,” she said.

The county contributed $75.9 million to the Worcester County schools’ operating budget last fiscal year, providing 86 percent of the schools’ operating funds. Under the commissioners’ instructions, the school board must cut their budget request down to $73.7 million.

Worcester County government pays more per pupil than any other Maryland school system due to a state school funding formula that compares the assessed real estate values, which are high in Worcester County, to the number of school children, which is low, to determine the state contribution. The County Commissioners make up the difference.

“We still need to cut an additional $1.6 million,” Superintendent of Schools Dr. Jon Andes. “The only place to get the additional $1.6 million is people. People means programs.”

Staff at local schools has not identified any further cuts since first presenting potential reductions to the school board in January.

Teacher and staff salaries are still under negotiation.

“We’re still asking for 3 percent,” said County Commission President Louise Gulyas. “I think Dr. Andes and the Board of Education have to sit down and look at this with a clear eye and make the necessary cuts.”

Some small classes could be combined, Gulyas suggested, when teachers leave or retire.

“It’s just time to reorganize. It’s all we’re asking for. I don’t think it’s a lot to ask for,” she said.

Hulburd feels the commissioners need to be place a higher emphasis on the school system.

“It becomes a matter of priorities. The priority is not there to focus on education as it should be,” Hulburd said.

Gulyas responded, saying, “I think they’re taking the whole thing personally. It isn’t personal. Everyone’s going to suffer: the towns, the Board of Education, the non-profits, everybody,” Gulyas said. “I don’t look at it as a step back. We’re just stopping for right now. We’re going to regroup. When times are better, we’ll be able to move on.”