SNOW HILL – The Worcester County Commissioners reiterated their support of a maintenance of effort education budget with a second vote on the matter this week.
On Tuesday, in front of a crowd of citizens wearing “Support Our Schools” buttons, the commissioners voted 5-2 to approve a maintenance of effort budget of $100 million for Worcester County Public Schools. Commissioners Joe Mitrecic and Diana Purnell, both of whom have expressed concern with the reduced education funding, opposed the motion.
“It does not look at the future of our education system properly,” Mitrecic said.
The commissioners initially voted to fund the school system at the maintenance of effort (MOE) level—the level needed to provide the same amount of funding on a per pupil basis year to year—on May 9. That decision came after commissioners said the school system had failed to provide requested budget details.
This week, when the overall $235 million county budget was presented for consideration, Commissioner Jim Bunting made a motion to approve the school board budget at the MOE level of $100,006,640. In his motion he also included funding retirement expenses of $758,679 and Buckingham Elementary School design fees of $815,000. He said the school system was also receiving state and other funding of $25.9 million which is a $2.9 million increase over the current year as well as restricted funding of $24.7 million (which is a $4.2 million increase), making the total school system budget $126,705,070.
While Commissioner Caryn Abbott seconded the motion, Mitrecic was quick to voice his objections. He said the Maryland Blueprint for Education would be imposing changes upon the local education system, changes that will be difficult to fund.
“It’s almost like we’re just hoping they’ll just go away,” he said.
He believes, however, that Gov. Wes Moore has made the Blueprint a priority. He added that the MOE budget wouldn’t provide funding for teacher salary increases.
“This doesn’t allow the school system to give raises unless they cut programs,” he said. “Cutting programs today affects our children in this county.”
He said after-school programs, sports programs and summer school programs could be in jeopardy. He added that the word transparency had been used throughout the budget process.
“This is the same budget book we’ve gotten for nine years and all the sudden it’s not the right thing,” he said. “I have concerns with that. I have concerns with the future of our children in this county.”
Mitrecic said he felt this year’s budget process had done “irreparable damage” to the relationship between the commissioners and the school board.
Commissioner Chip Bertino disagreed.
“I think the relationship is a good relationship” he said. “We just don’t see eye to eye. I do believe moving forward that the efforts that were made this year will put us as a county, and the taxpayers, in much better stead when it does come time to handle the mandates incorporated into the Blueprint for Maryland. We don’t know what we don’t know. As a county, and as stewards of the taxpayer money, we can’t manage what we can’t measure. This year we’ve asked to measure so that we can manage better in the future.”
Commissioner Eric Fiori said that as a businessman he knew how important the budget process was. He said line by line comparisons were essential to make wise financial decisions.
“I fully believe the children of the county are our future, and their education is a key component to their success, however this cannot come in the form of a blank check year over year,” Fiori said.
He said the elected school board members should be getting the detailed financial information they needed to make good decisions for the school system. Fiori said he was fighting for transparency.
“I am still trying to wrap my head around why clear financials are such a struggle to provide,” he said. “I ask myself why is the central office fighting against transparency? Why is only one elected board of education member speaking up about transparency? I hope in future budget discussions we bring back a team style atmosphere instead of an us versus them mentality.”
Bertino noted that following various requests for information from the school system, the county late Friday afternoon had received some financial information, but that staff hadn’t yet had the opportunity to review all of it.
“It’s very unfortunate the superintendent and the board of education president wasted all of this time trying to convince taxpayers, staff, the teachers union and bus drivers that the commissioners had no right to a line item budget and we were somehow wrong to want transparency in a $130 million-plus budget…,” Abbott said. “May this year be the beginning of positive change.”
Purnell said Worcester County was known for its great schools. She said it was critical that elected officials worked together.
“We do not have the ability to change Annapolis, but we do have the ability to stay on one accord in this county…,” she said. “If we stay on one accord, if we work with one another, we can grow in this county, and we’ll be able to deal with the mandates that come from Annapolis.”
The commissioners went on to vote 5-2 to approve the MOE budget. At the close of the meeting, however, Mitrecic again voiced his frustration.
“Throughout this budget process I’ve heard the word transparency used as many times as I’ve heard in my entire life put together,” he said. “Transparency works both ways. I have to ask how transparent was it for a majority of the commissioners to meet behind closed doors with admin to discuss MOE? There was no report of that beforehand and there was no report afterward.”
He asked how transparent it was for a commissioner to discuss grant funding with Atlantic General Hospital outside of a meeting, or how transparent it was for a commissioner to tell Superintendent Lou Taylor there were five votes in support of an MOE budget. He said there were also statements made to the Worcester County Teachers Association that regardless of what salaries had been negotiated, the school system was only getting a MOE budget.
“Transparency works both ways,” he said. “If we expect transparency we have to be transparent.”
Following Tuesday’s meeting, Beth Shockley-Lynch, president of the Worcester County Teachers Association, said she was really disappointed in the commissioners’ decision to limit funding to the MOE level.
“Unfortunately this is going to affect everybody, our students, our staff, our teachers,” she said. “We’re going to have to make cuts. We just don’t have the money to operate at maintenance of effort.”
When asked if Tuesday’s decision was the one expected, she said educators had been hopeful there would be last minute changes because the school system had been continually turning in financial documents.
“This is going to have a big impact on the school system,” she said. “Maintenance of effort is the minimum required. We’re used to being above the minimum. It’s really going to affect student and families.”
She said the school system was not a money-making entity and with the exception of a few grants relied on local government for funding. Shockley-Lynch said the teachers association had negotiated a 4% cost-of-living adjustment early on in the budget process to help educators deal with rising inflation.
“We thought when we started negotiations we were in good shape,” she said. “I wish I knew what went wrong.”
She said the MOE budget would not allow the school system to give teachers that 4% increase and that the association would have to go back and renegotiate.
“We’ll have to go back to the table and see what we can do,” she said. “This is new territory for us.”
She added that she hoped the relationship between the commissioners and the school system wasn’t damaged, as the two entities would need to continue to work together to fund schools.
“If we have many years like this we won’t be Worcester County anymore,” she said.