School Board Hears Public’s Hopes For Next Budget

NEWARK – The Worcester County Board of Education held a Public Budget Input Meeting on Tuesday concerning next year’s budget. Representatives from the 14 county public schools addressed the board, making specific, case-based requests for each location.

Additionally, several presentations were made outlining the county’s economic and academic status to the public.

Superintendent of Schools Dr. Jon Andes led a power point presentation summarizing Worcester County’s success academically.

“What we’re doing is working as a school system,” Andes told the public.

Andes revealed that Worcester County is ranked sixth out of 24 in the state for reading and first in math, according to the Maryland State Assessments (MSA).

“Overall, we’re ranked third in the state,” Andes said.

Despite the impressive numbers, Andes did point out some challenges the county still faced, specifically, improving test scores for African-American and Special Education students. However, he was confident that with the rate of progress schools have displayed in the last 10 years, any challenges would be overcome in the near future.

Next to present was Vince Tolbert, the Board of Education’s chief financial officer.

Continuing the power point, Tolbert concentrated on the budget difficulties facing the county. He revealed that the current fiscal year 2011 operating budget is $89,213,682, with a $200,000 technology budget and $100,000 capital outlay.

Other highlights of the presentation included the fact that 81 percent of funding is spent in the classroom and that 73.5 percent of that funding comes directly from the county. Additionally, Tolbert brought up the state’s wealth based formula, an issue that had become familiar to the school system.

According to the formula, Worcester is the wealthiest county in Maryland and thus receives the second lowest amount of state funding. However, Tolbert pointed out that the formula is based entirely on property values and that Worcester County was actually above the state average for Free and Reduced Meals (FARMS) which is used to measure household poverty levels.

Finally, Tolbert offered the public some information on the fiscal year 2012 budget. All in all, the county is looking at a potential operating budget shortfall of $1,600,000, due mainly to an estimated $1,450,000 decrease in federal funds.

Public Relations Coordinator Barbara Witherow made the final presentation. Witherow took the opportunity to quiz the board members on a recent parent survey distributed throughout the county.

“We are now entering a classroom,” she told the board, explaining that she would be the teacher and they would fill the role of students.

Board members were given wireless remotes and asked to answer multiple-choice questions about the survey. Through use of a SMART board, Witherow was able to make the session highly interactive, with digital avatars asking the board members questions.

While the board only averaged about 50 percent on the test, all information from the surveys was revealed. Sixty-six percent of the surveys were returned, a slight decrease from last year. However, both Ocean City Elementary School and Snow Hill Middle School had a 90 percent or better return rate.

The main concern that parents expressed through the surveys was a desire to recruit, hire and maintain staff in the schools. Some other results of the survey include 58 percent of parents rating the cleanliness of schools as “excellent” and 54 percent rating the safe and orderly environment as also “excellent.”

One of the few challenges Witherow mentioned was a desire to raise the percentage of surveys returned, especially from the county’s largest ethnic group, Caucasians, which fell 9 percent.

After the presentations, school representatives each took a moment to speak to the assembly about specific requests they had for the next year.

Between all 14 public schools in the county, there were several common requests put forth. Nearly all of the schools asked that the board provide funding to maintain small class sizes. Other top requests included a cost of living allowance (COLA) raise for teachers and the introduction of new technology such as SMART boards into the classroom.

Ocean City and Showell elementary schools both asked that their half-day music teachers be upgraded to full day.

“We’ve had to eliminate the pre-k music program,” Marilyn James, representing Ocean City Elementary told the board, referring to the struggling but popular music department.

While there were some deviations, the main request that most representatives echoed was the same that parents asked for in the survey: maintaining and hopefully expanding staff.

After all of the speakers had a chance to express their views, the board stated that the public’s concerns would stay with them while they built the budget over the coming months.

“We really appreciate the prioritization shown and the thought,” Board President Bob Hulburd said.