NEWARK– The Worcester County Board of Education this week approved a nearly $132 million proposed budget for the coming fiscal year.
On Tuesday, the school board voted 6-1, with Katie Addis opposed, to approve the spending plan. The budget will now be forwarded to the Worcester County Commissioners for their review.
“On June 6 the county commissioners are scheduled to adopt their budget,” said Vince Tolbert, the school system’s chief financial officer.
In a presentation to the board at Tuesday night’s meeting, Tolbert outlined the proposed budget, which includes estimated revenues of $131,965,977. More than 80% of that will come from Worcester County while less than 20% will come from state aid.
“Our school system continues to be very highly dependent on our county commissioners for funding,” Tolbert said.
County appropriations are budgeted to increase $4.8 million while revenues from the state are also set to increase by nearly $3 million. Tolbert said that was due to changes in the way the state identified FARMs (Free and Reduced Meal) students. Now, if students come from households that receive Medicaid they qualify as FARMs students.
Tolbert said the primary expenditure increase related to salaries. The budget includes $4,251,114 in salary increases—a step, a 4% cost-of-living-adjustment for teachers and a 4.5% cost-of-living-adjustment for support staff.
Health insurance rates are also set to increase almost 10%, but Tolbert noted that they had decreased in previous years.
“In the prior four years we’ve seen decreases or flat rates,” he said.
The budget also includes a $100,000 expenditure increase for materials of instruction.
“Inflation’s been out there,” Tolbert said. “The price of everything continues to increase.”
Bus contractors will also be paid more in the coming year. The budget will jump $403,742 in order to increase their hourly rate from $25 to $28. Their mileage rate will go from $1.62 to $1.76. The per-vehicle allotment will also increase to $22,385.
“That’s only for buses purchased in the upcoming year,” Tolbert said.
Alan Hudson, representing the Worcester County School Bus Contractors Association, thanked the school system for the proposed increases.
“This year has been much better than las year,” he said. “We appreciate the way negotiations went.”
About $600,000 of the expenditure increases included in the budget are tied to the Maryland Blueprint. Tolbert said the school system had budgeted $100,000 for dual enrollment fees, $100,000 for salary increases mandated for teachers who received National Board Certification and $395,834 to pay for career counselors that are required by the Blueprint.
The proposed budget includes capital requests of $875,000. The bulk of that, $815,000, is to complete the schematic design and development fees for a new Buckingham Elementary School. About $60,000 is included for playground replacement at Cedar Chapel Special School.
School system officials are set to meet with the Worcester County Commissioners regarding the proposed budget April 18. Once the commissioners adopt their budget in June, the school board will be able to adopt its final budget.
Following Tolbert’s presentation, Addis said she’d taken it upon herself to scrutinize the budget and had numerous questions. Acknowledging the budget work session the school board held in February, she said hadn’t realized the school board wouldn’t receive the entire document until Sunday. She subsequently made a motion to table the vote on the budget until the board had time to hold another work session so questions could be answered.
When there was no second to her motion, she said she would be voting against the budget.
“I feel the need to get these questions answered,” she said.
Todd Ferrante, president of the board, said Tolbert had been working on the budget since last fall and had provided the majority of the figures at the work session.
“Those numbers really haven’t changed,” he said, adding that the school system had only just finalized the salary numbers. “Those were just negotiated.”
Board member Jon Andes, the county’s former superintendent, praised staff for their efforts in developing the budget.
“It’s not easy to put a budget together for the school system,” he said, adding that he’d participated in the process 16 years. “We have to balance the needs of everyone in the school system. It’s a challenge, especially in rural school systems, because we don’t have the same population in every single school.”
He said that years before he came to Worcester County, officials made it clear they wanted to provide the same education to students all over the county, whether they were in the south or the north. That means it typically costs more to educate students in the less populated areas of the county than it does to educate a student at Stephen Decatur High School, for example.
Issues like that, paired with restricted funding streams and managing state, local and federal dollars, make developing a budget for the school system complicated. Nevertheless, Andes said Tolbert did a great job.
“At any point in time if anybody has a question, pick up the phone and call him,” Andes said.
Addis said she appreciated Tolbert’s efforts but said the board needed time to digest the budget.
“It takes time to talk with our constituents, which is what we should all be doing,” she said. “It takes time to formulate decent and meaningful questions. I did my homework. I took the time to review it in its entirety.”
She said she still had questions.
“Could I have sent Mr. Tolbert a lot of emails.? Sure I could have…,” she said. “That was not in a public setting. I’m trying to do my due diligence as a public servant to this community make sure our questions are being answered and that they’re being answered publicly.”
Ferrante said more than 90% of the budget was essentially fixed charges, things like salary and transportation costs.
“There’s not a lot in this budget that varies year to year,” he said.
He acknowledged that the salary packages had to be negotiated and those negotiations typically weren’t finalized until just before the budget was presented for a vote. The majority of the budget though, he stressed, had been set early on in the process.
“Those questions could have been answered by Mr. Tolbert if you’d reached out to him,” he said.
The board voted 6-1 to approve the proposed budget.