Parents Outline Funding Priorities For County School Board

NEWARK – Competitive teacher salaries, small class sizes and technology highlighted the requests made by parents at the school system’s public budget input session.

The Worcester County Board of Education last week hosted a budget input session to hear from parents representing each of the local schools.

“We take your comments very seriously,” school board member Todd Ferrante said. “We try to do the best we can with the money we have.”

Superintendent Lou Taylor welcomed dozens of community members to the public budget input session held each December. He said he was always impressed by the level of support and engagement from parents and community members.

“Both the board of education and our team place a high value on the feedback we receive no matter the topic, and this meeting tonight is a great example of just that,” he said.

Vince Tolbert, the school system’s chief financial officer, provided a brief overview of the $123 million budget.

“As you can see Worcester County Public Schools continues to be very dependent on our county commissioners for our funding,” he said. “Almost 75% of funds come from local government.”

In many other counties, the state funds the majority of the school system budget. Tolbert said that poverty in Worcester County was above the state average but that because of a longstanding formula weighed heavily toward property values Worcester was ranked the wealthiest in the state.

“Because of the current state wealth based funding formula that looks at income tax and assessable base, we’re considered the wealthiest county in the state of Maryland …,” he said. “As a result of that wealth-based state aid formula, we receive the lowest state amount of aid at about $3,700 per pupil which is well below the state average of $6,600.”

Tolbert said one of the key considerations as the board developed its budget for the coming year would be teacher salaries, as the school system wanted to provide a step and cost-of-living increase. Another issue to be considered in future budgets will be the Blueprint for Maryland’s future, an extensive education reform plan.

“It’s going to be driving education for the next 10 years,” Tolbert said.

Among the changes required by the plan is an increase in starting teacher salaries. Currently, Worcester offers pay of slightly more than $47,000 to starting teachers. The Blueprint for Maryland’s Future will require that teachers’ starting salaries increase to $60,000 by 2027.

When asked for their input, parents representing each of the county’s public schools approached the board with funding priorities for their facilities. Most said they wanted competitive teacher salaries, small class sizes and a focus on technology and materials of instruction.

“Worcester County Public Schools prides itself on small class sizes,” Buckingham Elementary School parent Kimberly Jackson said. “We feel that having a manageable number of students in a classroom enables teachers to be more effective.”

Speakers also stressed their appreciation of high-quality educators.

“We are fortunate in this county to have great teachers which is why I believe we need to do our best to keep them here,” said Berlin Intermediate School parent Gerri Fentress. “It is difficult to recruit and retain high quality teachers without a competitive salary scale.”

The request for competitive salaries was one repeated throughout the meeting.

“Our schools are great because our local leaders understand the importance of quality schools and the impact that has on the local economy,” Cedar Chapel Special School parent Marie Swartz said. “Our children accomplish great things because of dedicated staff.”

Beth Shockley-Lynch, president of the Worcester County Teachers Association, also advocated for employees, as recruiting and retaining quality teachers is expected to be an ongoing challenge.

“There is now a national teacher shortage,” she said. “Right now we are not producing enough teachers to fill the need we will have in the future.”

Alan Hudson, president of the Worcester County School Bus Contractors Association, said bus drivers were seeking pay increases in the coming year as they faced rising costs in maintenance, fuel and supplies. They’re asking for increases in mileage and hourly rates, among other adjustments.

“Driving a school bus full of children safely is a very serious responsibility…,” Hudson said. “We feel very strongly we have one of the most important jobs in the Worcester County school system.”

Parent Jackie Cutlip said that like each school’s representative, she too wanted to see the school system focus on things like teacher recruitment and small class sizes.  She said there were other things she’s long wanted to see, however, including metal detectors to make schools safer and more bus drivers to reduce the sometimes excessively long bus routes.

School board members thanked speakers and said their requests would be considered as officials developed the coming year’s budget.

“We all took notes,” school board member Jon Andes said. “We all heard you loud and clear.”

About The Author: Charlene Sharpe

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Charlene Sharpe has been with The Dispatch since 2014. A graduate of Stephen Decatur High School and the University of Richmond, she spent seven years with the Delmarva Media Group before joining the team at The Dispatch.