Yes To Transparency, No To Micromanaging

Yes To Transparency, No To Micromanaging

How much authority should the Worcester County Commissioners have over the specifics of the Worcester County Board of Education budget?

It was discussed at length at two meetings on Tuesday. First, in the morning education administrators reviewed the school system’s $131 million budget (80% from county funds) before the Worcester County Commissioners. The Board of Education approved the budget and the spending plan was before the commissioners for their review before required adoption next month. After the needs were expressed, the commissioners reiterated a reported request for more specific budget documents.

“We’re asking for more help to better understand where the budget’s going,” Commission President Chip Bertino 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.”

In response, Superintendent Lou Taylor said he answers first to the Worcester County Board of Education, which votes on the budget and oversees school system spending. Taylor agreed it was smart to be transparent with public funding but reminded the commissioners he needed to discuss with his school board the request. He said his goal is to represent the needs of his teachers, students and families. He also asked the commissioners how he can explain potential school system budget cuts when the county has sufficient funding in stabilization and other accounts to more than cover the $11 million deficit referred to multiple times during the meeting.

“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.”

On Tuesday afternoon, Taylor later said at the board of education meeting schools “are in deep trouble” if decisions and micromanagement of operating budgets occur at the commissioner level rather than in Newark. Board of Education President Todd Ferrante said, “I understand there is a shortfall. There was also a shortfall the previous year. It’s not really an unprecedented time because we were facing a shortfall before.” He said it’s the level of scrutiny the commissioners want over the school system’s budget that is actually “unprecedented.”

This is blunt talk not commonly seen between the school system and the commissioners. It’s equally refreshing and concerning. Over the years, the relationship between the Worcester County Commissioners and the school board has largely hinged on the superintendent of schools. When current Board of Education member Dr. Jon Andes was superintendent from 1996 to 2012, the county and the school system communicated well. Under his replacement, the relationship was strained. Under Taylor’s leadership, the connection has improved through communication and respect.

What we know is every year the county is facing a budget deficit where the requests from departments, including the school board, exceeds revenues. We also have witnessed each year the commissioners reconcile the budget through cuts and/or increases in fees and taxes. The process plays out similarly for all governments. While difficulties with labor market complexities and soaring costs are real and troubling, the county deals with a deficit each year. Stabilization funds are typically used in combination with cuts.

We think the school system would be wise to provide more detailed documentation to the commissioners, but we think the elected officials at the county level should tread lightly on micromanaging the schools and overruling their elected school board counterparts and the superintendent. We specifically hope the county does not try to remove raises for teachers and support personnel as well as bus contractors. It’s unfair to balance budgets on the backs of employee compensation changes.

Throughout this process of scrutiny, which is not a bad thing, the relationship between the commissioners and school system officials needs to stay positive with trust shown on both sides with strong and respectful communication.

About The Author: Steven Green

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The writer has been with The Dispatch in various capacities since 1995, including serving as editor and publisher since 2004. His previous titles were managing editor, staff writer, sports editor, sales account manager and copy editor. Growing up in Salisbury before moving to Berlin, Green graduated from Worcester Preparatory School in 1993 and graduated from Loyola University Baltimore in 1997 with degrees in Communications (journalism concentration) and Political Science.