SNOW HILL – Requests for funding teacher salary increases and technology for local schools again highlighted Worcester County’s annual budget hearing.
On Tuesday evening, dozens of county residents attended a public hearing on Worcester County’s proposed $194 million budget for fiscal year 2017. Comments from those present focused primarily on the need to support education funding.
“The County Commissioners heard everything you said,” County Commissioner Jim Bunting said at the close of the hearing. “We are listening. The spirit is good between the commissioners and the board of education.”1
The county’s budget, as currently proposed, totals $194 million and includes a $6.5 million shortfall that needs to be reconciled through a reduction in expenditures or an increase in taxes. The commissioners have advertised for a 4.55-cent property tax increase that would bring the rate to $87 cents per $100 of assessment. The budget and tax rate are scheduled to be adopted June 7.
In a presentation during Tuesday’s hearing, Harold Higgins, the county’s chief administrative officer, said the bulk of the county’s proposed expenditures (49 percent) in the coming fiscal year were related to education. Public safety accounts for 16.7 percent of expenditures in the proposed budget while grants to municipalities account for 11.2 percent of costs.
The vast majority of those in attendance at Tuesday’s hearing, many of whom were parents and teachers, encouraged the commissioners to fund education at the level proposed.
“The most valuable resource this county has is our children,” said Theresa Knight, a parent from Pocomoke. “If we don’t invest in them where are we going to be?”
Jerry Wilson, superintendent of Worcester County’s public schools, thanked the commissioners for their support in years past and asked them to continue it into the future. He said local students continued to be among the top performing in the state, something that was only possible because of the highly qualified staff the school system employed. Because of that, the budget proposed by the board of education includes funding for a STEP increase and a 1-percent salary increase for those not on the STEP scale.
“We know people make the difference,” he said. “Parents surveyed see the connection between the education their children receive and assuring that educators are compensated fairly.”
Wilson added that in recent years the school system had opted not to fill vacant positions to increase the funding available for teacher salaries.
“Through early retirement and attrition, 4 percent of workforce has been reduced to prevent our employees from falling more behind neighboring school systems,” Wilson said.
Beth Shockley-Lynch, president of the Worcester County Teachers Association, said the budget request was reasonable.
“Our schools are part of our community,” she said. “They are our responsibility … The budget request is modest and affordable so we can continue on a path to more competitive salaries.”
Ocean Pines resident Tom Terry, a candidate for the board of education, offered similar comments.
“The students of Worcester County are not worth less than students of other counties in the state,” he said.
In addition to the concerns about funding teacher salaries, several parents voiced their support for technology spending in Worcester County schools. Parent Doug Andrews said the county had shown a commitment to technology in the classroom in the past and he wanted to see that continue.
“I cannot think of anything that is more worth investing in than our children,” he said.
Alexandra Harrison, a senior at Snow Hill High School, shared her firsthand appreciation of the quality of education she was receiving in Worcester County. She said she knew she wanted to take part biomedical program at Worcester Technical High School as soon as she learned of it.
“We are extremely lucky to have this,” she said. “It will give us an edge in college.”
Though public comments focused primarily on education, a handful of citizens asked the commissioners to support social service organizations in the county. Representatives from Diakonia, the Worcester County Developmental Center and Worcester Youth and Family Counseling, among others, thanked the commissioners for past funding and asked that it continue.
Just two people expressed concern for a potential tax increase at the hearing. Harold Scrimgeour told the commissioners he thought changes to the county’s permitting process could help increase the tax base — something he thought was more palatable than raising taxes. Ocean City resident Vince Gisriel pointed out that many citizens were on fixed incomes and would struggle with a tax increase. He also brought up the tax differential Ocean City has sought for years and voiced his support for the study that was underway.
“It’s a matter of fairness …” he said. “I think a serious study on a tax differential is well overdue.”