County Seeks More Detailed Budget Information From WCPS

County Seeks More Detailed Budget Information From WCPS
Worcester County Public Schools Chief Financial Officer Vince Tolbert is pictured talking about the budget at an April meeting of the Worcester County Commissioners.

SNOW HILL– County leaders this week told education officials they were still waiting for more details regarding the school system’s $131 million budget.

Commissioner Chip Bertino, president of the board, said during a Worcester County Public Schools budget presentation on Tuesday that officials wanted more details regarding education spending as the county faces an $11 million deficit.

“There’s only so much money that we have available,” Bertino said. “It’d be helpful to get a better perspective on where every dollar is going.”

Superintendent Lou Taylor and Chief Financial Officer Vince Tolbert presented the school system’s proposed budget to the commissioners Tuesday. The roughly $131 million budget is funded primarily by the commissioners, with about 80% coming from the county and not quite 20% coming from the state. The school system’s proposed budget is about $4.1 million higher than that of the current fiscal year. The bulk of that increase is tied to raises—teachers are expected to get a step increase as well as a 4% cost-of-living adjustment. Support staff are projected to get a 4.5% cost-of-living adjustment and bus contractors will be paid more as well.

“Research shows the number one factor in student success is the classroom teacher, which is why our budget continues to focus on ensuring we can recruit, hire and retain topnotch faculty and staff,” Taylor said. “The best, really the only way we can do this is by offering a competitive salary and benefits package.”

Commissioners had questions about how grants were used by the school system. Tolbert said the funding in question was targeted toward building improvements, as those were one-time costs rather than annual expenses like salaries.

“We’re trying to be smart with that money,” Tolbert said.

Commissioner Eric Fiori said he understood that but pointed out the county was in an unprecedented time and thought maybe additional review of how that funding could be used should be explored.

“If you want to sit down and talk about it we certainly can,” Tolbert said.

Commissioner Caryn Abbott questioned the school system’s vehicle practices. Tolbert said a variety of employees, including coordinators and maintenance staff, had school system vehicles they used. He said there were about 60 vehicles.

Bertino asked where the costs associated with those vehicles were in the budget. When Tolbert pointed to the page numbers that related to the expenses, Bertino brought up his concerns with the budget documents provided to the county.

“What is presented to us I think at best can be described as a budget summary and not a detailed budget,” Bertino said. “There have been discussions that have been had over the last couple months requesting a detailed budget… What is the status of the commissioners getting that detailed budget and when can we see it?”

Taylor pointed to the slides Tolbert had just presented and asked if the commissioners wanted more detail than that.

“What we get from all the other departments and agencies is a lot more detail than what we get from the board of education,” Bertino replied. “A request has been made multiple times by multiple people.”

He said when talking about vehicles, for example, it was difficult for the commissioners to see how many vehicles the school system had and how they were used. Putting the county’s trio of budget binders on the dais, Bertino showed Taylor that the documentation provided by the school system represented just a fraction of that.

“We’re asking for more help to better understand where the budget’s going,” he said. “The mosquito control has a budget of $178,000 and I think a case could be made that there’s more clarity in that budget, to be able to better understand where the money’s going, than what we’re getting from the board of education.”

He said he didn’t believe that was intentional but rather just historically the way it had been done. This year, however, he said officials were seeking more details.

Taylor said he wanted to be transparent and there was nothing hidden in the budget. He said he answered to the school board and would see how they wanted to proceed.

Bertino said school board members had told him there was a reluctance to provide more detail because education officials weren’t sure what the commissioners were looking for in the document.

“It’s not a question of looking for anything specific,” Bertino said. “It’s to better understand how $104 million of taxpayer funding is being used.”

He said the county had funding challenges, some related to state mandates, and needed help from the school system.

“I hear you loud and clear,” Taylor said, adding that the school system’s budget was the board of education’s budget.

He said they’d meet Tuesday afternoon and he’d ask them where they’d like to go with the request. He said he’d also need Bertino’s help.

“I need your help when I have teachers looking at fund balances, looking at all the things, how I can answer them when I say to them the commissioners don’t have any money,” Taylor said. “I need your help there to help me with 1,100 employees to explain that side of it.”

Bertino said that wouldn’t be a problem. Fiori said that while providing the additional detail was something that hadn’t been done before, this was a particularly difficult time considering the price increases being seen across the board.

“This is a very different year,” he said. “We’re trying to do everything we can to make this work.”

Commissioner Joe Mitrecic, who pointed out he’d been involved in nine county budgets, said he didn’t want to see the details of the school system’s budget. He said last year, the county had an $11 million shortfall.

“Last year we were told we were going to be $5 million in the hole,” he said. “We ended up $12 million to the good. So I’m not one of the people that want to scrutinize the board of education’s budget. They’re elected officials the same as we are. They’re responsible for the school system of Worcester County. Not us. All we’re responsible for is funding it. We either choose to fund it at the level they ask for, we choose to fund it at the level the state requires, or we choose to fund it at some level in between there.”

He said if the commissioners really wanted the information they could get it through the Freedom of Information Act.

“But again, I don’t think that’s our thing,” he said. “If we’re going to fund it at the full amount we fund it. If we fund it at a different amount, we have to stand up and say hey this is what you get.”

Mitrecic subsequently made a motion to detach the board of education’s budget from the county’s overall budget, as done most years, so commissioners would be able to vote on the documents separately. The motion passed 6-1 with Fiori opposed.

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.