Commissioners Question School System Budgeting

Commissioners Question School System Budgeting
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SNOW HILL – The Worcester County Commissioners are seeking answers to a variety of financial questions now that they have a detailed school system budget to review.

The commissioners last week sent a letter to the Worcester County Board of Education asking for clarification on a number of items in the school system’s budget. Commissioner Chip Bertino, president of the board, said the county simply needed to gain a more accurate understanding of the Worcester County Public Schools (WCPS) budget and policies.

“It is not in the community’s best interest for anyone to draw any sorts of conclusions about the questions asked or the motivation of those questions beyond the commissioners’ desire to better understand what was provided by the board of education,” Bertino said.

In May, the commissioners voted to provide the school system with a maintenance of effort budget, funding WCPS at the same level it was funded last year. While educators were forced to make cuts, as the requested budget was more than 4% higher than it was last year, commissioners pointed to the fact that if other post-employment benefit funding was taken into account, the county was still funding WCPS at unprecedented levels.

When WCPS officials started addressing what they described as misinformation regarding school system spending that was circulating in the community, county officials submitted a Public Information Act request to generate a response to requests for budget details they initially submitted in April.

As a result, WCPS gave county administration thousands of pages of detailed budget information in late June. Bertino said that information was helpful but that commissioners and staff had some questions.

“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,” Bertino wrote in last week’s letter. “Following the review of these documents, we have a few initial questions and would greatly appreciate your assistance in reconciling them.”

What follows is 30 pages of questions and accompanying exhibits.

Carrie Sterrs, coordinator of public relations and special programs for the school system, confirmed this week that WCPS had received the letter.

“School system staff are currently working on a response to the questions posed, but I do not have any information at this time on if the Board will be discussing or making a statement regarding the letter,” she said.

The first issue cited in the letter is the school system’s overall 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,” the letter reads. “This irregular budgeting style leads to confusion and no doubt makes it difficult to plan ahead.”

An example provided shows that WCPS has no funding budgeted for a technology coach in fiscal year 2024 despite the fact that the county spent between $481,000 and $585,000 in that account during each of the previous four years. Similarly, there is nothing budgeted for athletic field trips even though the school system has spent between $96,000 and $193,707 in that category during the past few years. The account labeled “guidance supplies,” however, is set at $55,595 for fiscal year 2024 even though it’s usually less than $11,000.

“This account item is nearly five times what has been spent in the past, going back to FY18,” the letter reads. “Are you expecting a large jump in guidance supplies?”

Another issue identified in the letter is the fact that the budget lacks information about the LEADS grant, which does require a match from the school system. County officials want to know where it’s detailed in the budget book and how many employees are being funded by the grant.

The county goes on to question new positions the school system added in recent years. While the fiscal year 2023 budget presentation referenced five new positions, there were more than 36 positions added mid-budget cycle.

One of the exhibits attached to the letter is from the section of the budget related to expenses for meetings.

“There are multiple expenses to local restaurants in several sections of the financials. For example, there are 18 charges to The Sterling Tavern. In addition, there are multiple reimbursements to staff. Staff that received reimbursements also appear to have purchase cards,” the letter reads, going on to question why the charges were not on the purchase cards.

According to the letter, the school system’s budget includes funding for a staff member for the Worcester County Education Foundation, the nonprofit created in 2013 to support the local school system.

“What is the justification for the county funding a non-profit staffer?” the letter reads. “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?”

The letter also questions the school system’s bidding and procurement policies and addresses one of the issues that became controversial this spring—the school system’s fleet of vehicles. WCPS leases dozens of vehicles, a practice that officials have said is more cost effective than paying IRS mileage reimbursement rates. The commissioners want to know how WCPS determined whether it was buying or leasing vehicles, what the school system’s take-home vehicle policy is and whether drivers were required to track their personnel and business use of the vehicle.

Another hot topic the commissioners are seeking information on is commencement. School system officials said outdoor graduation ceremonies would have to be cut with the maintenance of effort budget. According to the letter, commencement expenses are set at $17,800 despite the fact that the costs regularly exceed that. The commissioners want to know if a request for proposals was done before “T.E.A.M. Product” and “The Brand Digita” were hired, at costs of $78,499 and $15,000 respectively.

“Why is the budget for commencement expenses $17,800 when FY21, FY22 and FY23 actual expenses have far exceeded the budgeted amount?” the letter reads, going on to question what the school system’s policy is when a budgeted account is overspent.

The letter also asks for specifics related to the FY23 budget transfer approved by the commissioners earlier this month. There are questions about how the school system achieved the budget surplus that enabled them to make the transfer as well as references to the school system’s increasing utility costs.

“According to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics from May 2022 to May 2023 the consumer price index increased by 4.0% and energy fell by 11.7%,” the letter reads. “The transfer request stated that utility costs were 17% over budget, overall operation of plant was 7.1% over budget, and maintenance of plant was 27.5% over budget. What utility accounts were over budget and are they specific to a school? What HVAC and building accounts were over budget and are they specific to a school?”

Todd Ferrante, president of the Worcester County Board of Education, said in an interview this week that the school system was in the process of responding to the questions sent by the commissioners.

“Once you see our responses it’ll give you a clear-cut picture of how the school board’s budget operates,” Ferrante said. “School board budgets are different than normal budgets. There are a lot of mandates. The commissioners might now understand that. They’re not used to seeing budgets like that.”

He added that the school system went through numerous audits each year, as required by law. He said school system officials had to make sure I’s were dotted and t’s were crossed to ensure all requirements were being met.

“We’re happy to share information and clear up any misunderstandings that may have occurred,” Ferrante said. “Our intent is to make sure Worcester County’s public schools are at the forefront of all the schools in Maryland.”

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.