BERLIN — Residents of Worcester County were divided in their support of the proposed fiscal year 2014 budget during this week’s public hearing at Stephen Decatur High School.
Debate over increasing the Board of Education’s budget received the lion’s share of remarks at the county’s budget hearing, especially on the subject of teacher raises.
While both sides came armed with research, statistics and personal stories, it was supporters of an increased Board of Education budget that brought the most in terms of pure numbers to the meeting, thanks at least in part to a mass mailer campaign recently conducted by the local public education unions.
Many of those who spoke in favor of a proposed step increase for school faculty, as well as a 1-percent Cost of Living Adjustment (COLA), did so with the justification that you get what you pay for.
“If we look at research, we see that class size and the quality of instruction, i.e. the teacher, are your two best bets,” said resident Helen Trivits.
Stressing the importance of preparing students in Worcester for “competition on a global market,” Trivits told the County Commissioners that she fully supports the current Board of Education budget. Besides the pay raise to faculty and a similar increase for bus contractors, as well as a 5-percent increase in health care costs, the budget includes $400,000 in one-time funding for technology and school improvements. The total proposed school system operating budget for FY2014 is $95,846,843, which represents a 2.58-percent increase from last year’s budget.
Resident Dia Arpon asked the commission to “accept that we are living in an age driven by cutting-edge technology and we must prepare students accordingly.” A modern, technologically equipped classroom is more than a luxury, she concluded, and is actually a necessity in keeping Worcester competitive as Common Core education standards are implemented nationwide.
Some opponents of the budget saw the technology increases, which included $200,000 for new computer tablets, as superfluous, however. Similar remarks were made about the faculty pay increase.
Carol Frazier pointed out that Worcester teachers already receive a healthy starting salary and claimed that they are generally paid well enough that a raise is unnecessary at this time with the county staring down the barrel of a roughly $7 million budget shortfall. That shortfall will have to be eliminated either through cuts to expenditures or a county property tax rate increase, which some commissioners vowed earlier this spring would not happen.
“The starting salary for a teacher in Worcester County is over $40,000 per year and that does not include the benefit package,” said Frazier. “For the time being, in these difficult times, I believe the Board of Education budget should remain as it is and not be increased.”
Frazier was also critical of the mass mailer distributed in support of giving teachers a raise, citing a budget surplus last year as a source where the money could come from.
“The flyer made the claim that the county had a surplus last year of $7 million,” said Frazier. “This is perhaps a little misleading.”
While there was around $7 million in excess revenue last year, Frazier argued that it shouldn’t be considered a “surplus” as the money is applied to budget stabilization.
“That $7 million surplus isn’t just lying around waiting to be spent,” she said.
Residents Leigh Williams and Kelly Kennett had similar views with Williams admitting that she feels teachers deserve a pay raise but that it would be unrealistic to do so in the current economic climate.
“Our educators certainly deserve more than they’re getting. However, there are no additional funds to supplement the proposed wage increase,” she said.
Like Frazier, Kennett urged people not to think of any extra revenue from last year as a surplus since the money will potentially need to be applied to the county budget stabilization fund. That fund, according to Chief Finance Officer Harold Higgins, could be well cleaned out by 2015. Luckily, early fiscal projections show signs that, as Higgins put it, FY2014 could be “the bottom of the trough” with a possible rebound by FY2015.
Kennett was pessimistic about any kind of economic turnaround in the near future. In arguing against a pay increase, she also cited Worcester’s teacher starting salary.
“According to the National Education Association (NEA) the average starting salary for a teacher in the United States was $35,139 for a BA and a Master’s level teacher with experience makes about $64,800,” said Kennett. “Worcester County’s new teachers make $42,222.”
It is fair to note that the NEA website currently lists the starting teacher salary nationally slightly higher than that, at $35,672 for 2011 through 2012. The average starting teacher salary in Maryland for the same period was $43,003.
Supporters of the Board of Education’s proposed budget responded to the continued references to average starting and teacher salaries nationwide by asserting that Worcester does not want to be average and that means a fair pay scale to attract and retain the best teachers.
“Now I’ve heard a lot of discussion tonight about salary averages and the amount our teachers are paid, and I just wonder how many of those salary averages came from the school system that was number one in that state,” said resident Vicky Layman.
Layman added that as a parent she wants the best possible education for her child. But more than just parents with school-age children should support increased education, she said, because it is an investment into the next generation. Worcester’s spot at the top of the state in terms of test scores, graduation rates and success needs to be protected, Layman told the commission.
“I expect a lot. I know everyone else does. You don’t get to be number one with the average salary,” she said. “These people go above and beyond. They do all they can for the kids plus some.”
Tax dollars invested into education do see a better-than-even return, according to Superintendent of Schools Dr. Jerry Wilson.
“We believe the investment in education is a wise one, resulting in significant returns. In fact, a recent study by Salisbury University’s BEACON business school indicates that for every $1 spent on education in Worcester County, the county gets a return of $1.61,” he said. “This means that the tax dollars spent on education multiple at a rate higher than many other county expenditures. A high quality education benefits our students and our community.”
The county has advertised a notice acknowledging that to keep pace with constant yield the property tax rate would have to increase from the current 77 cents per $100 of property value to 79.69 cents. Constant yield means that the county would adjust the tax rate up or down to stay even with falling or rising property values across Worcester. Staying at constant yield would not bring any additional tax revenue into the county over the prior year.
Just because the constant yield rate has been advertised, the county is in no way obligated to actually increase property taxes. That choice, along with all other aspects of the budget, will be decided on June 4. There will be three budget work sessions leading up to the budget adoption: May 14, May 22 and May 28. All will take place at 9 a.m. at the Snow Hill Government Center.