Officials Divided Over School Budget

SNOW HILL – A split-vote approving a Maintenance of Effort budget for the Worcester County schools ensures that the other county departments, which have already deeply cut their budget requests, will shoulder the burden of $327,000 in additional budget cuts.

The Maintenance of Effort school budget was approved 4-3, with Commissioners Louise Gulyas, Judy Boggs and Virgil Shockley voting against the motion to simply approve the Maintenance of Effort budget, with the option to move money between categories next week after further information is received. Commissioners Bud Church, Bobby Cowger, Linda Busick, and Jim Purnell voted for the Maintenance of Effort budget.

 “I’m not opposed to the budget. I’m just opposed to passing it today. I’m not opposed to the Maintenance of Effort,” said Boggs. “We’re not going to get any answers. I want answers.”

The heated discussion of the school board budget at the Worcester County Commissioners’ first budget workshop Wednesday revealed that the school board has not provided information specifically requested by the commissioners on contractor positions within the school board staff.

The commissioners disagreed over the need to know more about the 12 contractors, some former school board employees who are also drawing school board pensions.

The last three years have seen three formal written requests for that information, but several commissioners contended that they never got an answer.

The school board staff reply this year, according to county administrator Gerry Mason, is that the school staff is reviewing those positions and considering eliminating some or reducing salaries by 30 percent. No information on current salaries was included.

“We got no answers,” said Boggs. “What are we supposed to do with that information?”

Shockley wondered, how many times has the Board of Education vowed to communicate better with the county?

“We don’t necessarily need more talk, we need more answers,” said Boggs.

“They need to provide us with numbers,” Busick said. “We want to know today, right now.”

“You do realize the humor in that,” said Shockley.

The commissioners have asked for the same information for the last two or three years, and not yet seen an answer, he added.

Cowger and Church, strong supporters of the school board, said they had seen that information last year.

The commissioners, said Shockley, do not even know under which category those contract positions are included in the budget.

“Do we want to micromanage that much?” Church asked.

“We would like to know what we’re managing at all,” said Boggs.

A call to the school board did not produce an answer before the commissioners voted on the school budget and adjourned for the day.

The commissioners also discussed the student-teacher ratio, a low 11 to 1, a figure supplied by the school system which does not include educational assistants.

“It’s my suggestion we take more than a 3 percent reduction in the salaries,” Boggs said.

“Take 10 [percent],” Gulyas said.

“You can’t just hack numbers out,” said Cowger.

The commissioners retain the right, after approving the overall school budget, to move money around between the 13 categories of the education budget, such as putting money back into materials of instruction, a category severely cut by the school board itself.

“It should have never been on the table. It was only put in to make people mad,” said Shockley.

Over half a million dollars could be added back for textbooks, but those funds would need to be moved from another part of the schools budget.

“If you move it here, you’ve got to take it from somewhere else,’ said county administrator Gerry Mason.

Before the vote was taken, there was little discussion of the option to bypass the Maintenance of Effort budget in favor of the 3-percent cut budget, a difference of $1.8 million. Passing a Maintenance of Effort budget preserves just $251,000 in state funding. The county would have realized over $1.5 million in pursuing the lower budget.

“I just want my $1.8 million,” said Shockley.

“You’re not going to get that back either. Kiss that goodbye,” said Gulyas.

Church then made a motion to pass the Maintenance of Effort budget, seconded by Purnell.

“I don’t think with unanswered questions we would like the answers to we can go ahead and take a blanket recommendation that is presented to us without getting the answers to our questions. We’re not doing our job. This is the most important job we do,” said Boggs.

The commissioners can make category changes next week, Church said.

Boggs suggested waiting on the vote until then, but the motion remained on the table.

“You can cut. You don’t have to fund maintenance of effort,” said Mason.

No discussion followed and the vote was taken.

Once the maintenance budget was confirmed, nearly half the county budget was committed.

Some commissioners were concerned that the rest of the county will lose out because of the school budget vote.

“You basically held the Board of Education at flat money while all the county departments made their cuts,” said Shockley.

Shockley pointed out that in 2001, Worcester County schools had 7,000 students and 553 teachers, compared to 2009, when the schools had less than 6,700 students and 677 teachers. Support and administration staff have also increased between those years.

“There comes a time, fairness is fairness,” Shockley said.

Church asked staff to find out how many county employees there were in 2001, to allow more direct comparison.     

“I agree that we have perpetrated an obvious inequity here where the county has cut up to 28 percent of the budget and the Board of Education has refused to cut anything except what they absolutely must,” said Boggs. “We voted 4 to 3 to pass the Maintenance of Effort budget and we still have to go back and ask county employees to do more. There is something wrong with the picture of fairness in this county.”