Schools Asking County To Save Academies

SNOW HILL — With After School Academies (ASA) for several schools still in jeopardy after the unexpected loss of grant funding this summer, the Worcester County Board of Education plans to ask the County Commissioners for a one-time grant of $300,000 to finance the programs through the end of the school year.

In July, the board learned extensive grants from the Maryland State Department of Education (MSDE) would not be renewed, meaning funding for ASA at Buckingham Elementary, Berlin Intermediate, Pocomoke Middle, Snow Hill Middle, and Stephen Decatur Middle schools would be completely gone for this school year.

To keep the programs alive, the school board was granted permission in August for a last minute inter-budget transfer that allowed them to funnel $300,000 from other programs into the academies.

That funding, though, only paid for ASA through the first half of the year. Another $300,000 is needed to finance the spring semester.

“The board realized how important these programs are and we identified budgetary transfers within our budget FY13 that could keep these programs going for the first half of this year,” said Board of Education Chief Financial Officer Vince Tolbert. “Later on this month we’re going to go on to the County Commissioners and ask for a one-time supplemental funding of $300,000 to keep those programs going until the end of the school year.”

Because of the rules governing Maintenance of Effort (MoE), in most cases where the commission grants additional funding to the schools they would be required to give the same amount annually since counties aren’t allowed to fund below the MoE. However, in this particular case the board hopes to receive approval for a special waiver that would allow the commissioners to grant the $300,000 outside of the MoE and thus not be responsible for providing the money annually, which would be a much tougher sell.

According to Coordinator of Public Relations and Special Programs Barb Witherow, the waiver request process, which has to run through MSDE, has already begun.

Even if the MSDE grants the request, however, there’s no guarantee the commissioners will agree to provide the funding this year. If the $300,000 is approved, it is only a short-term fix. In the long-term, the school system will have to search for a stable source of funding for ASA.

“Next year, in FY14, we’re going to have to identify that $300,000 in our operating budget,” Tolbert said.

Alternative grant funding to eliminate or alleviate that annual expense is still being pursued, explained Witherow, but there’s no guarantee that any will be found either this year or next, if ever.

“We are absolutely seeking new grants to replace the grants that were not continued. However, the grant approval process takes time,” she said.

One thing that is clear is that the academies are incredibly popular. During this week’s Public Budget Input Session, parent representatives from several of the county’s schools requested that ASA continue to be fully funded. With a focus on Science, Engineering, Technology, and Math (STEM), supporters of the academies view them as a useful tool that allows students to think outside the box and be introduced to learning strategies they wouldn’t encounter in the classroom.

ASA also provides a nutritious meal that with 42.43 percent of Worcester students coming from households of poverty some kids might not receive every afternoon after school.

The most important function of the academies, noted Witherow, is they serve the dual purpose of helping struggling students while presenting a challenge to those succeeding.

“Our after-school programs are not just remediation,” she said. “They are also enrichment.”