County Budget Talks Heat Up

SNOW HILL – Elected officials appeared divided in their support for the Worcester County school system budget formally presented this week, with one commissioner saying the schools would cope, while other commissioners worried aloud that the school system would be damaged by budget cuts.

The contentious school budget process entered a new phase with presentation of the budget to local elected officials Tuesday. The budget exceeds the 3-percent cut mandated by the county under a state law mandating level school funding.

The Worcester County Commissioners and the Board of Education also met on Wednesday morning to go over the budget briefly. The budget process calls for a more thorough, line-by-line discussion of the schools budget later on.

The public school system, which historically receives high levels of funding from county government due to the state funding formula, have been resisting the cuts mandated by the commissioners in the fall. Since January, the school board and staff have predicted negative outcomes for the school system if the schools budget was cut by that 3 percent.

In March, the school board announced that state law requires schools to fund each student at the same level as in the previous year, a standard called maintenance of effort (MOE), and refused to ratify the 3-percent cut budget. The MOE budget adds about $1.8 million back into school funding for next year, saving the county only $650,000 as opposed to the $2.3 million reduction with the 3-percent cut.

The county has already filed a request for a waiver of the MOE requirement with the state Department of Education.

The schools want $72 million from the county for the next fiscal year under the MOE request. The 3-percent budget would come in at $70.1 million.

“We are required by state law to submit a maintenance of effort budget,” said Board of Eduction President Bob Hulburd at Tuesday’s meeting.

The MOE budget, which includes one furlough day for administrative workers but cuts only 29 positions, adds back in field trip, textbook, and materials of instruction funding.

“We’re doing the best we can do with the challenges we face,” said County Commission President Louise Gulyas after the presentation. “We’ll do our best. That’s all I can promise you. … This budget bothers me. It really does … I find it very hard. We will work this out. We have to work it out for the students, not for the teachers, not for the staff, not for the parents. It’s about the kids.”

The commissioners asked some preliminary questions about the MOE budget Wednesday morning.

Commissioner Bobby Cowger questioned a reduction in textbook funding.

“We would simply delay the purchase of textbooks and only purchase textbooks on an as needed basis,” said Superintendent of Schools Dr. Jon Andes.       

Textbooks last from five to seven years, he said, and are replaced when worn out or when the curriculum changes. Next year, under this budget, textbooks would only be purchased if current volumes became damaged, if a curriculum change was handed down by the state or if new students came into the system and the school did not have enough.

The budget also reflects rising costs in utilities and other necessary services outside the classroom. Schools have already instituted energy saving practices, but cannot control energy prices. Health insurance is also seeing costs rise, by as much as 10 percent.

Out-of-county travel for school employees has been restricted since the summer, unless required by the state or for appearances in front of the Board of Public Works or Interagency Committee on School Construction.

“There are times when the state department of education insists a person attend physically, be on site,” Andes said.

The superintendent has also insisted on using conference calls for distant meetings, saying six-hour roundtrip of travel for a two-hour meeting is a waste of time and resources.

Gulyas noted that the schools’ technology request has been cut to $200,000.

“What kind of impact does that make for the students?” she asked.

That $200,000 is for on-site software licensing, Andes explained. In the past, the school system has used its technology allocation to buy mobile computer labs, replacement computers, document cameras and more.

“We wouldn’t purchase anything like that,” Andes said.

“What we have will be sufficient?” Gulyas asked.

“No, it won’t be, but we’ll make do,” Andes said.

“That bothers me,” Gulyas said.

“That bothers me, too,” said Andes.

Stimulus funding will not swell the school budget, Andes pointed out. Worcester County expects to get $800,000 in stimulus funding for special education, but that money will only be provided for two years, and by law cannot be used for existing operating expenses.

“It is restricted. We can only use it for special education. We can’t use it to pay for anything we’re already paying for,” said Andes.

The school board appears to have strong support from some of the county commissioners.

“I think you all have made a hard effort and really tried to work with us on the budget. I know you’ve got some obstacles,” Commissioner Bobby Cowger said.

The county needs to protect its investment in the school system, he said.

“As you all see, with us not meeting maintenance of effort it’s certainly putting a burden on the system. It seems like the students are really hurting from this. That hurts me,” Cowger said.

Times are tough, but the commissioners do not want to damage the school system, he said.

“It’s incumbent upon us to search our hearts as we work on this and do the right thing, put our differences aside and do the job we have to do and protect what we’ve invested into,” Commissioner Jim Purnell said. “To turn the clock back on our educational system would be a disaster. I think we need to take that into consideration this budget.”

Commissioner Virgil Shockley agreed that the school system is excellent, but said claiming a funding reduction would seriously damage the schools did a disservice to the excellent teachers hired by the county.

“The teachers we have in this county will rise to the occasion,” Shockley said. “I don’t believe they will stand up in that classroom and give less than 110 percent every day.”

Shockley also pointed out that in his 11 years as a commissioner schools have received funding over and above MOE every year.

“Every captain on every ship at some point has to face the storm. For the past 11 years, we have given smooth sailing,” Shockley said.

All segments of Worcester County are hurt by the recession and the restrictions on the county budget, said Commissioner Judy Boggs.

“Another segment hit badly are the people served by our non-profits,” Boggs said.

Worcester County is one of only four counties in Maryland that offer grants to their non-profits, though elected officials have already informed local non-profits that the county will not be accepting grant requests this year.

“We know in a recession there’s more need rather than less need…the decisions we make impact on a lot of people,” Boggs said.