County Schools Seek Cut Relief

NEWARK – Worcester education officials did an abrupt about face on Tuesday, just before adopting its proposed fiscal year 2010 budget, when it came to light the spending plan would not comply with a seldom-evoked state law requiring a local contribution equal to the prior year’s allocation per student.

Shortly after reviewing its rather dire fiscal year 2010 budget reflecting a 3-percent, across-the-board cut from last year’s local allocation mandated by the County Commissioners, Board of Education members voted not to adopt the spending plan after discovering it did not meet state Maintenance of Effort requirements.  The state law adopted over a decade ago requires local governments maintain their education funding effort from year to year on a per pupil basis.

The law rarely comes into play because most public school systems in Maryland routinely exceed the minimum Maintenance of Effort requirement. Although some counties treat the maintenance effort law as a ceiling and not a floor, Worcester County, as far back as anyone can remember, has always appropriated more then the minimum required.

However, because of the troubling economy, the commissioners this year required all departments, including the Board of Education, to reduce their requested budgets by 3 percent. After cutting roughly $3.6 million from last year’s requested allocation to meet the 3-percent reduction requirement, school board members were prepared to adopt the 2010 budget on Tuesday before realizing it did not meet the Maintenance of Effort standard, which could jeopardize the level of state funding the county public schools receive.

Last year, Worcester County’s contribution to the public school system’s overall budget came in at around $72.6 million. With a total enrollment of 6,376 students in the county’s public schools, the per-pupil allocation came in at around $11,388. This year, with enrollment declining to 6,318, to meet the same $11,388 per pupil allocation required by the maintenance of effort law, the county’s contribution would have to be around $71.9 million.

However, with the 3-percent budget reduction mandated by the commissioners, the proposed fiscal year 2010 budget introduced includes a local contribution of just over $70 million. The difference of around $1.8 million represents a shortfall in meeting the state’s Maintenance of Effort law, which derailed the school board’s adoption of the proposed 2010 budget on Tuesday.

After reviewing the proposed 2010 budget on Tuesday, long-time school board member Sara Thompson asked if the spending plan met the state’s Maintenance of Effort requirement. School board attorney James Almand told Board of Education members it fell short of meeting the requirement and its passage could jeopardize the level of state funding.

“All school boards in the state of Maryland are required to submit budgets that comply with the Maintenance of Effort law,” he said. “It is not optional or discretionary. In my opinion, the board cannot adopt a budget that does not comply.”

School board members were quick to back off on their support of the proposed 2010 budget with the 3e-percent reduction included because of concerns of not complying with the state law.

“I’m not going to vote for something that would run us afoul of the law,” said Thompson. “We need to be cautious. The fact is, the law is on the books for a reason.”

Board president Bob Hulburd agreed the elected body could not in good conscious adopt a budget that did not meet state law. He said the board was being put in the difficult position of meeting state law and the county’s mandated 3-percent cut in the proposed budget.

“We’ve been put between a rock and a hard place,” he said. “It is our duty to ensure that the school system is eligible to receive all the state aid that is available to it. We just can’t risk the loss of state aid.”

School board members were quick to point out the commissioners have always been generous with their contributions to the public schools and have almost always exceeded the minimum requirement. Last year, for example, the county provided roughly $4.5 million, or about 7 percent, more than was required by the Maintenance of Effort law. In 2007, the county provided about $5.6 million, or over 10 percent, more than was required by state law. Nonetheless, while school board members acknowledged the generosity of the commissioners in the recent past, collectively they said they could not overlook the state law and did not adopt the proposed budget.

“We appreciate their position in these tough economic times,” said school board member Doug Dryden. “We just cannot overlook our responsibility to our students. We have to follow the law.”

Superintendent of Schools Dr. Jon Andes agreed the county has exceeded the minimum requirements in the past.

“This is my 13th year and my 13th budget, and the commissioners have always funded above Maintenance of Effort and we are truly thankful for that,” he said. “That funding has allowed us to become one of the top school systems in the state and the nation. That being said, I don’t know that we can or should try to circumvent the state law.”

The late revelation about state Maintenance of Effort requirements forced school board members to not adopt the proposed 2010 budget with the 3-percent reduction reflected in it. Instead, the school board instructed Chief Financial Officer Vince Tolbert and Andes to go back to the drawing board and draft a budget reflecting compliance with the state law.

Essentially, the move puts the budget adoption on a parallel course with the proposed 2010 budget with the reductions still on the table and a new budget compliant with state law in the works. The school board will meet again on March 31 to consider the new budget, which will still need to include about $670,000 in cuts to make up for the decreased student enrollment.

Meanwhile, the County Commissioners can apply for a waiver from the Maintenance of Effort law if they can prove economic hardship. The window for applying for the waiver is tight, however. The county would have to apply for the waiver by April 1 or just one day after the school board gets a look at the new state law-compliant budget.