Friday, Feb 19–County Schools Use Reserves To Balance Budget

NEWARK – County schools will submit a budget request for $71,039,072 to the county next month, an amount that meets the state’s Maintenance Of Effort requirements (MOE).

With a deadline moved by 30 days, the Worcester County Board of Education approved the fiscal year 2011 school budget Tuesday for transmittal to the County Commissioners.

The budget saw reductions in expected county aid and an increase in state aid, amounts which essentially cancel each other out. The school board plans to use the fund balance set aside for unexpected costs to supply additional funding for shortfalls in the next budget.

The gap in part stems from a projected $1.2 million increase in business costs such as energy.

The school board budget encompasses $615,000 less in county funding, which is offset by $640,000 in more state aid. The increased state aid stems primarily from an increase in students who fall under the households of poverty category.

However, the school board still needs to use $567,000 from a fund balance reserved for unexpected cost increases to meet the MOE budget minimum.

Each school system in Maryland must pay the same amount per student in the next fiscal year as it does in the current. The MOE budget is based on projected enrollment, which is expected to drop slightly in Worcester. Last year, Worcester County schools met the MOE minimum budget by cutting $1.7 million in planned expenditures.

The fund balance will be used to replace classroom computers and mobile computer labs as well as the replacement of failed heating and air conditioning units. The school system has seen its technology budget slashed deeply over the last few budget years. The rest of that funding has been assigned to textbooks, special education and field trips.

“Teachers have to have something to teach with. They have to have current textbooks as the curriculum changes,” Board of Education member Doug Dryden said.

The school system would be losing staff without using the fund balance to meet the FY11 budget, said Assistant Superintendent for Administration Ed Barber.

The budget suffered from many cuts and realignments in funding, school staff said.

“You can see some pretty substantial reductions,” Chief Financial Officer Vince Tolbert said.

Changes could still happen, as far as state funding goes, according to Tolbert.

“These state revenue estimates could change. State aid will not be finalized until the General Assembly concludes, and this will be well after our proposed budget is submitted to our County Commissioners,” said Tolbert.

The school system had to write a budget based on the best information at hand, said Barber.

“It’s our best shot,” Barber said.

For the second year, Worcester County teachers and staff will not receive any salary increases.

While the school system did not fill several positions last year when vacated, the school board has not yet laid off or furloughed teachers or staff.

The FY11 schools budget includes cuts of $320,000 in textbooks and $230,000 in teacher salaries.           

Board of Education member Bob Rothermel suggested asking the County Commissioners to consider, as new numbers come in and as the budget process goes on, ways to enhance pay for teachers.

“The only way to keep good staff is to pay ‘em and the only way to you’re going to attract ‘em is to pay ‘em,” said Rothermel.

 “We all agree it’s the people that make the difference in the schools,” said Dryden.

Board of Education President Hulburd said that idea would be put into the school board’s budget submittal letter to the commissioners.

Hulburd also said he would like to urge the county to push the Snow Hill High School renovation project ahead, since construction costs so much less right now, and that will also allow the Showell Elementary School renovation or replacement to proceed more quickly.

“The longer it takes to do Snow Hill High School the longer Showell Elementary School is put on the back burner,” said Hulburd.

Ed Lee, chair of the Worcester County branch of the NAACP, also asked that efforts to close the African-American academic achievement gap be supported in the letter.

The school board will officially present the budget to the County Commissioners on March 2 and go through the budget with the commissioners during a March 9 work session.

Hulburd said he is concerned the school system is on a slippery slope.

“Things have gotten even harder,” said Hulburd. “These are extraordinary times. These are tough times.”

Lee agreed, saying, “It’s scary. It’s really, really scary.”