County Pulls Waiver, Easing Schools Strain

BERLIN – The County Commissioners’ clandestine decision Friday morning to no longer pursue a waiver of Maryland’s minimum school funding levels does not mean that the county school system will be assigned minimum funding, also known as Maintenance of Effort.

The commissioners met on Friday morning in an emergency meeting, ostensibly open to the public but not advertised outside the government building or communicated to the press. Information on the meeting was posted Friday morning on a public bulletin board in the government building and inside the commissioners’ office.

Spokesperson Kim Moses said there was some doubt over whether the meeting should be closed or open, and the county attorney was consulted Friday morning, compounding the lack of notification. Budget matters are always debated in open meetings, due to the fact public money is being discussed.

The commissioners did not intend to exclude anyone, said County Commissioners President Louise Gulyas, who added the meeting was not held behind closed doors.

Gulyas reported that the debate on Friday morning lasted over an hour. The contents of that debate are unavailable.

According to Moses, who takes the minutes of commissioner meetings, which are never taped, the commissioners voted only to withdraw the waiver request, and did not vote on anything else such as a definite assignment of Maintenance of Effort funding to the school systems.

The county would have made its case before the Maryland State Board of Education on Monday, so the meeting had to be held Friday, sources say.

Commissioner Virgil Shockley said he was not informed of the meeting until 9:30 Thursday night.

The Maintenance of Effort school funding controversy has been a matter of ongoing debate since mid-March.

Gulyas called the emergency meeting after hours on Thursday, following a budget briefing from staff, who informed her that the county could manage the Maintenance of Effort funding by reducing contributions to retired employee health insurance and using interest from a benefits trust fund to make those contributions in future.

County departments have also cut anywhere from 5 to 28 percent from their operating budgets already.

“This is all going to happen on the backs of the county employees,” said Gulyas. “Our people have stepped up and the board [of education] has not.”

The commissioners spent an hour debating withdrawal of their previous request to be exempt from the minimum school funding standards imposed by the state.

The vote to withdraw the waiver request was supported 5-2, with Commissioners Gulyas, Bud Church, Linda Busick, Bobby Cowger and Jim Purnell for pulling the request, and Commissioners Shockley and Judy Boggs against.

The rationale for withdrawing the request, according to Gulyas, was to preserve the county’s chances for such a waiver next year, which preliminary analysis predicts will be more financially difficult.

“We’re definitely going to need this next year…why go up two years in a row?” Gulyas asked. “It’s not a good situation anyhow. They’re not going to be in favor of it.”

The commissioners voted unanimously in March to go after the waiver.

Shockley voted against withdrawing the waiver request, explaining that the commissioners had already voted unanimously to pursue it, and that going through with the presentation would have been good experience if the county pursues a waiver in the future.

“We’d already done all the work. Why not go the hell up there and figure out what their game plan is?” Shockley said. “We did exactly what we should have done but we didn’t follow through.”

“We’re happy and we’re thankful,” said Worcester County Board of Education President Bob Hulburd. “It’s fortunate our county has seen a way to at least fund a Maintenance of Effort budget for education this year.”

A Maintenance of Effort budget will prevent lay-offs and restore funding for instructional materials, field trips, and textbooks. But, Hulburd said, people need to realize that a Maintenance of Effort budget is still a cut.

A waiver of Maintenance of Effort would have permitted the county to pursue a lower level of funding with no funding penalties. At risk was $251,000 in new state money.

Also at risk, Hulburd said, are future grants, which often want to see a Maintenance of Effort level of funding to show that the local jurisdiction is doing its share.

A 3-percent cut to the school system’s current operating budget, which would bring funding below Maintenance of Effort levels, would save the county $1.8 million. Losing the additional state funding by making cuts below minimum state-mandated levels would still save Worcester County $1.5 million.

“The county has to spend seven times what the board is going to get in additional funding from the state,” said Shockley.

Whether education in Worcester County is funded at the Maintenance of Effort level or less will depend on final revenue numbers, not due until mid-May.

If those numbers are significantly less than expected, Shockley said there would have to be a serious discussion of making cuts below the Maintenance of Effort level.

“If they were to change their position, I’d be disappointed because that’s what they told us they were going to do,” said Hulburd. “I feel that their commitment is to fund the Maintenance of Effort level.”

“We are on a high wire and all we’re managing is not to fall off. We’re not walking yet. That’s where the county’s funding is right now,” said Shockley.

“I know, the board knows, they have a tough road to hoe,” said Hulburd.

Paying more into the school system this year could pose problems for next year, since county departments asking for bare bones budgets now will not be able to reduce further.

“You have to prepare for the worst,” said Shockley. “I don’t know when fiscal responsibility became a four letter word in this county and this country.”