NEWARK– Concerns about teachers leaving Worcester County Public Schools for better pay elsewhere dominated a budget hearing this week.
On Tuesday, the Worcester County Board of Education hosted a public budget input session. Numerous speakers expressed their worries that teachers would begin to leave Worcester County if their pay wasn’t increased.
“They feel unappreciated and undervalued,” said Beth Shockley-Lynch, president of the Worcester County Teachers Association. “They are facing the challenge of remaining in Worcester County, a place they love and have been dedicated to, or leaving to go to one of our neighbors because the compensation is significantly above ours.”
As it does each December, the school system hosted a public input session in preparation for development of the coming year’s budget. Chief Financial Officer Vince Tolbert provided an overview of the current budget in advance of the hearing.
He said the school system had a $125 million budget primarily funded by county government. He noted that the school system did have a $1.5 million surplus but said it was considered a best practice to end the year with a surplus because officials could never know exactly what expenditures would be.
“We needed it in case things come up,” he said, adding that as directed by the Worcester County Commissioners the school system had used most of the surplus to go toward school system retirees’ health insurance costs.
Tolbert added that 86.5% of the school system’s budget was spent on people.
“We have long believed the reason for our success in Worcester County Public Schools is our low class sizes,” he said. “The low class sizes do cost money. It is expensive but we strongly believe and we have for a long time that’s why we’re so successful.”
Tolbert said the county’s current year funding was at the maintenance of effort (MOE) level, which meant it was the same amount of funding on a per pupil basis the school system received the prior year. He said MOE didn’t include allowances for inflation or health insurance cost increases.
He said the MOE budget left the school system $1.6 million in the hole, which is why cuts were made to things like outdoor graduations and summer school programs at some schools. Tolbert said that at slightly more than $50,000, Worcester County’s starting teachers were the lowest paid in the state.
“I never thought I’d see Worcester at last in starting teacher salary but that’s where we are,” he said.
Tolbert presented four potential scenarios for salary adjustments next year. He said a salary step increase and no cost-of-living adjustment (COLA) would leave WCPS with a $3.91 million budget shortfall while a salary step and a 2% COLA would result in a budget shortfall of over $5.8 million. A salary step and a 4% COLA would lead to a shortfall of $7.45 million while a salary step and a 6% COLA would lead to a budget shortfall of $9.22 million.
Nevertheless, most speakers asked the school board to ensure teachers in Worcester County had competitive salaries. Mike Ewing, a parent of an Ocean City Elementary School student, said fewer teachers would lead to larger class sizes.
“Make your voices heard amongst the commissioners and please do not settle for anything less than what is best for this county,” he said.
Willy Brown of Pocomoke said the county would lose teachers if a maintenance of effort budget was approved for the second year in a row. Berlin Intermediate School parent Kim Jackson agreed.
“Maintenance of effort will mean staffing cuts,” she said. “Maintaining small class sizes is crucial.”
Snow Hill Middle School parent Amanda Bunting agreed.
“If the county passes a maintenance of effort budget for the school system it means staffing cuts,” she said. “We are successful because of the low student to teacher ratio in our classes.”
There were also requests for adequate funding for materials of instruction.
“The provision of instructional materials should not be reliant on donations and fundraisers,” said Tom Harris, a parent speaking for Snow Hill High School.
Shockley-Lynch said that while Worcester was consistently the highest performing school system in the state, it had the lowest starting salary.
“Other counties have made education a priority. They have given consistently yearly colas that range from 3% to 9% depending on the year in order to keep quality people in education.”
She said a teacher with 10 years experience could make $8,000 more in Wicomico County than that teacher would make in Worcester.
“Other departments in the county received significant increases…,” she said. “Right now it feels like our teachers are the only ones that are being cut.”
Other parents echoed the calls for teacher raises.
“Denying our high performing school system the proper funding is incredibly shortsighted,” Buckingham Elementary School parent Tom Simon said. “Please keep the pressure on the commissioners to fully fund Worcester County Public Schools.”
Commissioner Caryn Abbott said that earlier Tuesday, the commissioners had reviewed the county’s CIP and had removed funding for a $37 million administration building. She said WCPS had cut popular programs like summer school but had ended the year with a $1 million surplus.
“Once again, I want to say you don’t have a funding problem you have a priority problem,” she said, adding that she wanted the school system to make teachers, support staff and bus drivers the priority.
John Abbott said everyone wanted to see teachers get the raises they’d been promised. He said the public also wanted more transparency regarding the budget.
Kimberly Shreeve, a Snow Hill Middle School teacher, said years ago teachers would wait for an opening in Worcester to come here. She said that was no longer the case.
“This personal agenda of a budget process has caused WCPS employees to feel unappreciated and disrespected. If the county passes only a maintenance of effort budget there will be devastating consequences.”
She said there would be positions lost and cuts to programs and materials.
“Teacher and support staff salaries cannot be ignored. Right now we have the highest test scores in Maryland,” she said. “We are at the bottom in salaries. This is how our hard work has been rewarded. We received an embarrassing and insulting 1% pay raise while other county departments received 5 to 12% pay raises. They’ve shown us where their priorities lie and they should be embarrassed. Last year the county commissioners gave themselves an 8% pay while some educational assistants working in our county are having to rely on government assistance to feed their families.”
Stephen Decatur High School teacher Shannon Bone said teachers were being used as political pawns.
“Where can your priorities lie when you cannot fully fund schools?” she said.
Newark resident Pat Barbely asked for better pay for teachers, bus drivers and support staff.
“Worcester County schools are well funded, we just have a priority problem with how the money is dispersed,” she said.
School board members said they appreciated the public’s input and would consider it as the budget process moved forward.
“You have a commitment from this board to work as hard as possible and to work with everyone to support the teachers, support staff and the bus drivers,” said Todd Ferrante, president of the board. “We’re going to do our best this year to accommodate you and give you what you deserve. We appreciate what you do every day. We can’t tell you enough, what you do for our kids is invaluable.”