Worcester Schools Satisfied With Finalized Budget

NEWARK — The Worcester County Board of Education formally adopted last Thursday its fiscal year 2013 budget, receiving approximately $850,000 less than requested from the County Commissioners.

At the same special Thursday meeting, the board also finalized a re-negotiation with teacher and support staff unions, who had to settle for a smaller raise than they pursued earlier this year.

“The Board of Education requested an additional $1.9 million in new funds to support the negotiated increase in salaries for teachers and support staff and an increase for bus contractors,” said Chief Financial Officer Vincent Tolbert. “Because the original salary package was not fully funded, negotiations with the teacher and support staff associations had to be re-opened.”

However, Worcester County Teachers Association President Helen Schoffstall told the school board that while some teachers may be upset that the original 3-percent pay raise considered by the County Commissioners was clipped to 2 percent, she was just happy that any raise made it into the budget.

 “It’s a glass half-full or glass half-empty,” she said. “At least we got something in the glass.”

All county employees were eligible for the raise. It is the first any of them has gotten since 2008.

Many members of the board took a similar view of the budget at large. Originally asking for level funding this year, meaning the exact same amount as given last year, plus a small employee raise, the Board of Education instead will have to accept Maintenance of Effort (MoE) funding. MoE means that county schools will receive the same amount of money per pupil that they did last year. Because enrollment rates are slightly smaller than last year, the board will receive $851,300 less than they would have with level funding.

The absence of that money will be countered, fortunately, by a projected decrease in the school system’s health-insurance premiums.

“The additional county revenue, coupled with the health savings and an increase in state aid ($370,000) will enable the Board of Education to sustain programs and services, avoid layoffs, and fund a modest pay increase,” Tolbert said. “In addition, some projected health savings have been re-allocated to the categories of textbooks and classroom supplies ($200,000) and maintenance of plant ($70,055).”

However, Superintendent of Schools Dr. Jon Andes reminded residents of Worcester that MoE funding is “minimal” and warned of trouble ahead if schools aren’t further funded in the future.

“Next year will be the fourth consecutive year that the school system will have been locally funded at the minimal Maintenance of Effort level,” he said.

Board of Education President Bob Rothermel drove home Andes’ and the board’s view that minimal funding will eventually lead to minimal results.

“While we are very grateful for the support demonstrated by our County Commissioners to provide an employee pay raise, we are still concerned about the future,” Rothermel said.

Rothermel pointed out that MoE isn’t as comprehensive as the name makes it seem.

“Maintenance of Effort funding is a misnomer. MoE provides for the same dollar amount to be spent per pupil,” said Rothermel. “It does not take into account increased fixed costs like electricity and fuel. This, of course, negatively impacts the programs that can have an effect on your child’s ability to learn. Unfortunately, within that MoE cost per pupil dollar amount, we will be spending less on students and more on outside obligations.”

With the decrease in insurance costs, Rothermel admitted that Worcester schools “were lucky” this year. He echoed Andes’ fear that MoE might not be able to meet future needs, especially with new programs and expenses, such as the Common Core Curriculum, becoming mandatory.

However, at the end of the day the BoE quickly and unanimously accepted next year’s budget, and Andes took the time to thank the County Commissioners, especially those who voted in favor of an employee raise, for their efforts.

“Although we were hoping for level funding in addition to a modest pay increase, we were deeply grateful for the funding our school system will receive in FY2013,” Andes said. “However, our message will continue to be the same. We will continue to advocate for keeping kids first. Our schools matter because our children are our future.”

While the county commissioners received some criticism from the board for failing to meet level funding, it is fair to note that newly-adopted state MoE mandates require counties in Maryland to match the funding they give schools from year to year unless they are able to secure a waiver from Annapolis. Therefore, money that is funded over the MoE one year must be carried over to the next year.

Commissioners like Judy Boggs have has argued the new state laws work against schools by discouraging any funding over MoE, since doing so would be setting minimal mandatory funding higher for the next year.