More Education Funds For Wicomico Budget Sought

SALISBURY – Education officials, concerned citizens and members of the business community came before county leaders this week seeking additional funding for the Wicomico County Board of Education.

On Tuesday, the Wicomico County Council held a public hearing on County Executive Bob Culver’s proposed operating budget for fiscal year 2019.

The proposed $151 million budget includes $43 million in maintenance of effort funding and a one-time appropriation of $750,000 for the Wicomico County Board of Education.

This year, the school system is seeking additional funds to establish universal pre-K, improve the graduation rate, and attract and retain a strong workforce. Money for those initiatives, however, have not been included in the board of education’s proposed budget.

Members of the business and philanthropic communities on Tuesday told the county council they were in support of the school system’s initiatives and wanted to see the county provide funding above maintenance of effort.

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Bill Chambers, president and CEO of the Salisbury Area Chamber of Commerce, noted that an investment into the public education system drives the local economy.

“If you are pro-education investment, you are pro-business,” he said. “Maintenance of effort is not a badge of honor. It is an obligatory state mandate that does not demonstrate forward thinking, it doesn’t keep our economy competitive and it’s not putting students and families first.”

James Thomas, board chair of the Community Foundation of the Eastern Shore, said the organization funds several programs that support public education each year. He said the foundation and other public-private partners are willing to stand behind the board of education’s requests.

“The commitment of the county to a maintenance of effort approach would be understandable if our school system was No. 1 across the board, but it is not …,” he said. “At the local level, we need to invest in our future. We are proud to stand here tonight as a partner and support local schools, education and youth.”

Jim Hartstein, concerned parent and board president of the United Way of the Lower Eastern Shore, said children with the financial resources, time and support perform better in school. He asked the council to support additional funding for the school system’s initiatives.

“We are fully confident with the proper financial resources we’ll be able to uplift our community,” he said.

Resident Mat Tilghman said he would support a tax rate increase to fully fund the school board’s requests.

“One cent on our tax rate, I’m told, equals $600,000,” he said. “I personally stand ready to support increasing that by five cents and investing it in our education system. That will improve our business community and ultimately will increase our tax base.”

School Superintendent Donna Hanlin said the school system worked with the community to develop its three specific initiatives over a period of years.

“We can’t just throw dollars at our public schools, but we need to invest in our future through a very specific business plan,” she said.

Hanlin asked the county council to consider the school system’s additional requests.

“I hope you will recognize that funding maintenance of effort only supports, and barely supports, the status quo,” she said.

In a press release issued last Friday, Superintendent of Schools Donna Hanlin said, “Since the State of the Schools address and the introduction of Imagine 2022 in January, we’ve been talking about our key priorities and how those priorities will serve the needs of our students, families, staff and community. When we saw this proposed budget, we were disappointed to see that there was no proposed increase in operating revenue to meet any of these necessary  educational requests. Our three main priorities of: beginning  Universal Prekindergarten program, providing new pathways to improve our graduation rate and ensuring that we are able to attract and retain a high-performing workforce in our schools cannot be implemented with just MOE funding.”

The county council on Tuesday also heard from Wicomico Public Library Executive Director Andrea Berstler.

Berstler said the library’s proposed budget for fiscal year 2019 is 84 percent of what the library received 10 years ago.

“We are the poorest funded library in the state of Maryland per capita,” she said. “We have been the last seven years. The reason for that is because of the county portion of this budget.”

Berstler said the budget would not cover rising health care costs or include cost of living adjustments (COLA) for library employees.

“We also didn’t receive any funding for COLA increases for our staff, even though the county did so for their staff,” she said. “I find this to be dismal treatment of public library services … This library does not receive the respect it needs from its own county.”

The county council is expected to hold work sessions with county departments in the coming weeks. The fiscal year 2019 budget will be adopted in June.

About The Author: Bethany Hooper

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Bethany Hooper has been with The Dispatch since 2016. She currently covers various general stories. Hooper graduated from Stephen Decatur High School in 2012 and the University of Maryland in 2016, where she completed double majors in journalism and economics.