School Officials Await Md. Budget’s Impact

BERLIN – The other shoe dropped last week when Gov. Martin O’Malley introduced his proposed state budget as expected on Friday, but just how far it fell remains uncertain for Worcester County Public Schools officials.

Last week, the Worcester County Board of Education introduced its own fiscal year 2012 budget without knowing precisely what to anticipate in terms of state aid. Board officials bemoaned the fact they were required to submit a balanced budget in advance of knowing what to expect in terms of anticipated cuts in state aid, and after O’Malley introduced his fiscal year 2012 budget last Friday, the picture is not any clearer.

“The governor introduced his budget on Friday and we’re still trying to identify the impacts on our school system,” said Worcester Superintendent Dr. Jon Andes this week. “What we do know is that he reduced funding for public education by about $100 million, but we don’t know just yet exactly how that will affect us.”

Historically, when the state cuts aid for public education, Worcester County is among the jurisdictions hit hardest, based on Maryland’s funding formula linked to the value of real estate in the counties. According to the formula, Worcester is among the wealthiest counties in the state despite the fact nearly 40 percent of its public school students come from families of poverty, which is higher than the state average and also higher than 13 other school systems.

However, Andes said this week he believes the state’s formula was altered to some degree in O’Malley’s budget introduced last week, which could increase the level of state aid for Worcester.

“In our school system, student population is increasing and the number of students from households of poverty is increasing in kind,” he said. “Accordingly, we should see an increase in state aid, but we’re still uncertain just what it means. As I understand it, the formula for state aid was adjusted in this budget, but we still aren’t sure about the details.”

If further cuts in state aid for education for the counties are on the way, Worcester should be in a better position to absorb them than many other jurisdictions. Roughly 75 percent of the Worcester County public schools budget comes from the county, with the state providing about 17 percent, while in some jurisdictions, the breakdown is more like 50-50.

“Since we rely less on state funding, further reductions in state aid should impact us less than jurisdictions that count on the state to provide much more of the funding for their budgets,” said Andes.

Nonetheless, further cuts from any source could be hard to bear in what is shaping up to be a difficult budget process this year. The proposed budget includes $89.8 million in anticipated revenues for fiscal year 2012, while the estimated expenditures for the upcoming fiscal year total about $90.2 million, leaving a deficit of $389,702 that must be reconciled in order to present a balanced budget to the County Commissioners in mid-February.

Meanwhile, one casualty of the governor’s budget could be the American Government test, one of four currently taken by all high school students as a condition of graduation. Maryland high school students currently take four tests each year as a graduation requirement. The tests include English 10, which satisfies the reading requirement; Algebra I, which satisfies the math requirement; Biology, which satisfies the science requirement; and American Government, which satisfies the social studies requirement.

However, O’Malley’s budget calls for eliminating the $1.9 million cost of administering and grading the government test, while leaving funding in place for the other three.

“We were informed on Friday by the Maryland State Board that in order to make a budget reduction, the governor chose to eliminate the state government test as a graduation requirement,” said Andes.

Andes emphasized the budget calls for eliminating funding for the test by 2014, meaning those currently in high school in Maryland will still be required to take and pass the exam in order to graduate.

“That requirement still exists for the class of 2014,” he said. “Kids in high school right now will still be required to take and pass that government exam.”

The government exam became a casualty in the governor’s budget because unlike the other three, it is not a requirement of the federal No Child Left Behind program. No Child Left Behind mandates standardized tests in reading, math and science as a condition of graduation for Maryland high school students, but taking and passing a social studies exam is not mandated by the federal program.

“The English, algebra and biology exams satisfy the No Child Left Behind requirements for reading, math and science,” said Andes. “There is no federal mandate for a social studies exam as a condition of graduation, so the government exam has been cut from the budget. It could conceivably go back in if funding is available, but it has been cut for the time being.”