Commissioners Surprised By School Board Action

SNOW HILL – Controversy over the Worcester County Board of Education budget continues, with county elected officials surprised over the board’s sudden invocation of a state regulation requiring flat funding of the schools on a per student basis.

“I’ve sat here for 11 years and didn’t have the faintest idea what Maintenance of Effort was until I saw it in the [briefing] book,” said Commissioner Virgil Shockley. “I kind of feel a little shell shocked.”

“Maintenance of Effort” is a state regulation requiring school systems to budget the same amount per student in the next fiscal year as it did in the previous budget year.

The concept has never been relevant in Worcester County, since the County Commissioners have increased their school board budget allocation every year in recent memory.

“The Maintenance of Effort is an issue for the very first time,” said county administrator Gerry Mason Tuesday.

Last November, the commissioners mandated that all county-funded agencies cut their county appropriation requests by three percent. The Board of Education first saw the fiscal year 2010 schools budget in January. That first budget did not reach a 3-percent cut, but staff members said they would work on it. A second look at the budget in February showed no change. Superintendent of Schools Dr. Jon Andes said at the time that budget changes were waiting on salary negotiations with teachers and support staff.

This week, school board members refused to approve a budget reflecting cuts mandated by the County Commissioners, saying that they did not want to break the law by violating Maintenance of Effort regulations.

The commissioners said on Tuesday that the regulation never came up during at least two private meetings in February between those elected officials and the school board. However, Andes said yesterday a school board letter to the county broached the topic last month.

“I never heard of that term ‘til maybe two weeks ago,” said Commissioner Linda Busick, referring a political event in Easton. “That term had not ever come before us as a group. Why didn’t they tell us right from the get go? Why didn’t they tell us that when we started the budget process? Why did this suddenly come up?”

Commissioner Bob Cowger gave the school board the benefit of the doubt.

“That’s been pretty new to us in the past couple of weeks,” said Cowger. “I think it fell through the cracks as far as getting to us … I really don’t think they were just holding back for the last second to spring it on us.”

Commission President Louise Gulyas said, “I’m sure that it’s very political, but I also feel that regardless of what happens we’re going to fund the budget. The budget has to be funded. We just need to know how we’re going to do it.”

Worcester County will file for a waiver of the Maintenance of Effort with the state’s Department of Education in advance of seeing the Board of Education’s budget. The county must file for the waiver by the end of March. The school board’s budget is not due to be officially turned in to the county until April 7 with discussions beginning in a county budget work session April 8.

Officials do not expect to receive that waiver, however.

“I don’t think we’re going to get the waiver,” said Cowger. “We’re going to have to go in and juggle some dollars. We’re going to have to take something from something else.”

The county is also asking the state’s Department of Education to subtract the $385,000 supplemental payment the county allocated to the school board for utility and other cost overruns from the maintenance of effort number. One-time and capital expenditures on items intended to last five years should be excluded from the maintenance of effort figure.

According to county budget officer Kathy Whited, the school board included the supplemental amount in the Maintenance of Effort figure already submitted to the state.

That was intended as a one-time payment, said Commissioner Virgil Shockley. Therefore, it should not go toward the key Maintenance of Effort figure.

In six of the last eight years, the school board has requested differing amounts of supplemental funding, all of which appears to have been added into the Maintenance of Effort number, Shockley said. The county has assigned $1,680,000 in supplemental funding to the school board since 2000, according to a county analysis.

“The number is being inflated,” said Mason. The county needs to take a hard look at the numbers, he added.

In an interview yesterday, Andes said every year the school board president, superintendent of schools and the commission president must sign a document certifying the county allocation for the school board budget. He said it’s these figures that are used to determine the Maintenance of Effort calculation.

“That’s always signed in June and it’s required by law for all jurisdictions. For example, the state will say here’s your current expense number, here’s the school construction number and here’s the debt service. It’s spelled out in a state form and signed off by everyone,” Andes said. “Consequently, the current expense number is the number that’s used for Maintenance of Effort, which is defined by the 13 budget categories. Once you add up all those numbers, that’s the maintenance of effort. All three of us [then-Board President Garry Mumford, Andes and then-Commission President Virgil Shockley] signed off on this document last June so there are no surprises.”

Mason characterized the Maintenance of Effort law as slanted towards local boards of education.

Whited said there might be some gray areas in terms of what is and what is not a recurring cost, such as wireless computer labs. If the commissioners assign funds to put them into the high schools, then decide to put them into elementary schools, the Maryland Department of Education could consider that a recurring cost, she said.

The commissioners also handled another part of the Maintenance of Effort process, telling the state how much funding the county intends to assign to local schools, a decision the commissioners had to make Tuesday.

“If we are not going to meet the Maintenance of Effort, how much money are we thinking of giving them?” Mason asked. “The decision needs to be made today.”

“We’ll stick with 3 percent,” said Gulyas, referring to the original spending cut request to all county department.

“It was a unanimous vote,” said Boggs.

“It was a $2.2 million reduction,” said Mason.

The commissioners voted 4-2 to stay with the 3-percent reduction figure with Commissioners Bud Church and Bobby Cowger dissenting.

Gulyas said that the allocation assigned to the Board of Education could change.

The commissioners also said this week that they would meet with the board to work on budget issues.

“I think that’s what we all want,” said Louise Gulyas.

“We want to work with the Board of Education in resolving this,” said Commissioner Judy Boggs.

“We have to sit down at the table and be very upfront,” Gulyas said. “This is not personal. This is business.”