Educators Share Frustration Following County Funding Decision

Educators Share Frustration Following County Funding Decision
File photo by Charlene Sharpe

BERLIN – Educators say they’re disappointed and discouraged following this week’s funding decision by county officials.

Following the Worcester County Commissioners’ 5-2 vote on Tuesday to provide Worcester County Public Schools with maintenance of effort (MOE) level funding, the minimum required by the state, educators were quick to express their frustration. According to school system officials, the budget decision means teachers won’t receive the 4% raise negotiated earlier this year.

“We feel disrespected by the commissioners’ decision to underfund our schools,” said Everett Evansky, a science teacher at Stephen Decatur High School. “Our district is the largest employer in the county and this vote hurts all of our families.”

After weeks of requesting detailed financial information that wasn’t provided, the commissioners in May voted to provide the school system with MOE funding of $100,765,319, a decrease of $218,286 over the current year adopted budget. While the figure is less than what the school system requested, commissioners pointed out the county was covering a significant amount of school system retiree costs and construction debt. Debt service amounts to $10.8 million while retiree costs exceed $8 million.  In all the school system’s funding accounts for 51% of Worcester County’s estimated revenue.

The school system submitted financial information to the commissioners last week in response to a Public Information Act request but the previous funding decision was upheld at this week’s meeting, when the board voted 5-2, with Commissioners Joe Mitrecic and Diana Purnell opposed, to approve MOE level funding.

“It is disappointing that the Worcester County Commissioners have made the decision to fund our schools nearly $280,000 below the level of funding we received from them last year,” said Todd Ferrante, president of the school board, in a statement. “While we certainly hoped for a different outcome, especially after providing the majority of the detail they requested, we must now turn our focus to the difficult task of revising our FY24 budget to address the now $4.5 million shortfall our school system now faces.”

The shortfall means the 4% raise for teachers previously negotiated—as well as the increases for support staff and bus drivers—will have to be reevaluated.

“As our negotiating teams go back to the table, we will endeavor to mitigate the damage this maintenance of effort budget has caused while ensuring our teachers, staff, bus contractors, and above all, our students know that we support and value them,” Ferrante said.

Beth Shockley-Lynch, president of the Worcester County Teachers Association, said she was really disappointed in the funding decision.

“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 students 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.

“It’s going to be a bare bones year and we hate that for our kids,” she said.

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 added that the cost of living was up about 8%.

“We agreed on half of that and now we’re not going to be able to get them that,” she said. “We’re not keeping up with the economy. In the middle of a teacher shortage it’s scary. Families have to do what’s best for them.”

Evansky said that while the issue of transparency had been brought up countless times, the school system already shared years of budgets and audits on the school system’s website.

“A lot of people feel we are a pawn in someone else’s argument,” he said.

Shockley-Lynch confirmed that the teachers association would be renegotiating with the school system following the county budget decision.

“We’ll have to go back to the table and see what we can do,” she said, adding that there hadn’t been a need to renegotiate in many years. “This is new territory for us.”

Evansky agreed and pointed out that while steps and salaries were impacted following the 2008 economic crisis, current circumstances weren’t comparable.

“The economic situation we faced in 2010 when steps were frozen is not the same economic situation we’re facing now,” he said. “Something else is going on.”

Teachers are waiting to see just what the impact of the MOE budget will be. In a letter to the editor this week, Decatur teacher Megan Seyler questioned where the cuts would be, pointing out that after school programs and professional development were at risk.

“I could continue to bring up things that the BOE may consider cutting in order to balance their budget,” she wrote. “However, what’s the point when members of the BOE Executive Board and members of the BOE Elected Board have both insinuated their focus will be on rescinding the contract agreements made in March?”

According to Seylor, her paychecks next year will be smaller than they are now.

“How? In addition to only granting MOE, the County Commissioners approved a health insurance package at a 9.5% premium resulting in an increase in cost to all county employees,” she said.

In a statement following Tuesday’s meeting, Superintendent Lou Taylor said central office officials were working on identifying cuts.

“We are certainly saddened by the outcome of today’s budget vote…,” he said. “Our leadership team has already begun the process of identifying what cuts we will recommend to our Board of Education, but I can’t stress enough that any cut will be detrimental to the student experience here in Worcester. Additionally, we won’t be able to determine the full scope of any cuts that need to be made until renegotiations are completed with our associations.”

While disappointed in the decision, teachers say they hope the school system will be able to maintain a good working relationship with the commissioners going forward. Shockley-Lynch said the school system would suffer if a MOE budget became a regular occurrence.

“If we have many years like this we won’t be Worcester County anymore,” she said.

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.