OCEAN CITY – Members of the newly formed Parents in Action group came before the Wicomico County Council this week to express their concerns for Board of Education funding, in particular the maintenance issue at James M. Bennett Middle School.
Kim Hudson, one of the founding members of Parents in Action, said the group strongly believes solutions can be found when all parties put aside their differences and work together.
“Our newly formed independent parent group, Parents in Action, will advocate for the quality education that are children deserve and strive to provide the best funding possible for our schools in Wicomico County,” she said. “We want to live in a community that values education and safety … and feel that the current conditions are unacceptable. We would like to respectively urge the council members and other community members to join us in making the funding of our schools a top priority … we need to focus on preserving and strengthening funding for our schools and making that our priority.”
Wicomico County Board of Education President Ronald Willey was also in attendance and expressed his concern over Wicomico County losing their spot in line to receive state funding to move forward in improving James M. Bennett Middle School.
“It is our sincere desire to see this project move forward,” he said. “In recent meetings I have attended, my understanding is other counties very much want state funding money for construction, and right now we are still in line for the James M. Bennett Middle School project.”
Willey said the meeting this Friday, which will be held at 3:30 p.m. at James M. Bennett Middle School in the media center, will address alternate ways of funding. His desire is that the school board and the County Council can find a way to work together in a cooperative manner to have the project completed as well as find funding for budget needs.
“We must so something about this, our county deserves better than what we have here,” he said.
Lauralyn Geiser of Parents in Action asserted that future budget cuts will be even more devastating than the cuts that have already been received. She pointed out that Wicomico County ranks 23rd out of the 24 school systems in Maryland in per-pupil funding.
“Over the last six years, counties in Maryland have either increased or maintained their level of educational funding while Wicomico County’s spending budget for education has decreased by almost 23 percent in two fiscal years,” she said.
Geiser had a letter on hand that she received from her children’s principal at Fruitland Primary School in the beginning of the school year.
According to the letter, there is an anticipated shortfall of $5 to $7 million next year, which would require major changes within school operations in Wicomico County. She furthered the shortfall could be more with grants and reserve funds running dry.
The letter also listed options in how school operations may suffer from the lack in funds, such as reducing or eliminating programs outside of the core education mission, including extracurricular activities and special programs; increasing class sizes to reduce teaching positions; cutting the use of technology for instruction; closing schools and assigning the students and staff to other schools; changing to a four-day school and work week; and charging new fees for use of service, such as transportation, extracurricular activities, and programs at all levels.
“I think that it is obvious that these options would not only affect the students but it will affect the county and community as a whole,” Geiser said.
Parents in Action members, as well as council members, have had the opportunity to tour James M. Bennett Middle School. Group member Lisa Mertensotto said the school falls well below the expectations of a well maintained school.
“I was very upset,” Mertensotto said of the school’s conditions. “When I went upstairs, I was told they have chicken fans that have to line the hallways to cool the hallways, they have to open windows and there are loud noises, the children are sweating and people are getting sick from heat exhaustion. Teachers are crying in the offices of their administrators. This is a very upsetting thing to me and I really think it needs to come to the attention of the county council because the sources of funds come from you.”
Councilwoman Gail Bartkovich said that back in November she had requested a report on the maintenance that has been completed on James M. Bennett Middle School in the past 10 years with operating dollars, county funded dollars and any other funds.
“To read today that there is papers on windows for shades, lockers are broken, and ceilings are falling down is an indication to me that this school has not been maintained by the Board of Education and I find that a very sad state of affairs,” she said.
Willey quickly responded that she will receive a response to her request.
“The building is being maintained,” he said.
A Community Budget Awareness and Input Meeting will be held at 5:30 p.m. on Monday, Dec. 12, at New Dimensions Ministries.