The Worcester County Commissioners sent a letter to the Worcester County Board of Education this week that most likely went over like a lead balloon in Newark.
In a letter to Worcester County Board of Education President Todd Ferrante, Commission President Chip Bertino wrote, “On behalf of my fellow commissioners, I would like to thank you for providing the additional, detailed financial data for the FY24 BOE Budget that we requested. This line-by-line breakdown is extremely beneficial in helping our office begin to gain a more accurate understanding of the Board of Education’s budget, policies and programs. Following the review of these documents, we have a few initial questions and would greatly appreciate your assistance in reconciling them. … We appreciate your continuing partnership and look forward to your timely reply.” In the spring, the majority of commissioners flat funded the school system – providing the same amount of public dollars per student as the year previously – because they didn’t feel the school system was transparent enough during the budget process. The commissioners had sought detailed budget reports to justify the funding request. This week’s letter is in response to the hundreds of pages of detailed reports provided to the county from the Board of Education.
What followed Bertino’s letter was 30 pages of questions and exhibits, beginning with confusion over some five-year expenses. The letter reads, “One significant note is regarding the actual budgeting process. It seems in some cases that there is nothing budgeted in line items that had expenses assigned to them for 5+ years and in other cases line items are grossly overbudgeted for what has been actually spent each year. This irregular budgeting style leads to confusion and no doubt makes it difficult to plan ahead.” The letter then provides some examples to prove the point on matters like technology coach, new positions created mid-budget year, student tutoring programs, guidance supplies and field trips. There are numerous other questions raised in the packet, including specific issues with meeting meals (including 18 visits to the same Berlin restaurant), as well as an inquiry into the school system’s non-profit education foundation’s staffer being paid through the school system. On the non-profit staff member question, the letter asks, “Statements have been made that over $1 million has been raised by this foundation. Does it make sense for the county to continue directly funding this non-profit’s position?” In each of the outlined areas of concern, exhibits were attached highlighting the questions.
To be fair, most of the questions addressed in the packet are reasonable. It’s appropriate for the County Commissioners to want to ensure school system funding given by the taxpayers is properly being used. However, it’s clear the school system and the Board of Education will look at the scrutiny as micromanagement. I think this claim would be accurate. The county is looking to tightly manage how government funds are used by the school system. The county clearly does not trust the school system’s spending at this point. This is the only reasonable conclusion.
A process to rebuild the trust must take place. The entire school system vs. commissioners’ discourse over the past several months boils down to mistrust. Most of the commissioners clearly do not think the school system is being responsible with the tax dollars received. The letter clearly questions the school system’s financial policies as well as specific expenditures, like severance incentives the school system provides that the county does not currently. Relations clearly need to improve between the two bodies, but in the meantime the scrutiny continues.
The new Maryland law legalizing cannabis allows local governments to be more restrictive with specific rules, and it seems Worcester County is not willing to be as lax as the state.
At this week’s meeting, the Worcester County Commissioners voted to keep any new dispensaries at least 2,000 square feet away from schools and childcare areas — state law requires 500 feet from a school, daycare, playground, recreation center, library or public park. The county does not know if it’s going too far with this restriction and seems willing to take the chance. The county also voted to prohibit on-site consumption establishments as Ocean City did this spring.
The more restrictive approach seems like a good direction for the county to take while adjustments are made to this new normal. It’s logical if new dispensaries are permitted, they will be opened in northern Worcester County due to the resident and tourist volume seen. It’s a good call to be proactive and try to regulate their locations while more questions are asked and answered.
Not everyone agrees with the restrictive approach, as one social media commenter raised some good points this week when he questioned whether the commissioners were truly representing the citizens with the concerns expressed this week because the county supported legalization of cannabis at the ballot box last year. It’s true Worcester County voters in the referendum in 2022 overwhelming supported the referendum legalizing cannabis for adult use and possession. In Worcester, 62% of voters in last fall’s referendum backed legalization, 14,118 votes to 8,742. Statewide, 67% of voters supported legalization.