WCPS Officials Share Funding Challenges In Budget Work Session

WCPS Officials Share Funding Challenges In Budget Work Session
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NEWARK– School system officials said they’d need millions in additional revenue to even provide teachers with a step increase in the coming fiscal year.

During a budget work session on Tuesday, staff told the Worcester County Board of Education that it would take an additional $5 million to provide a step increase and no cost-of -living adjustment (COLA) to teachers.

“It’s what keeps me up at night,” Superintendent Lou Taylor said. “Our teachers deserve a raise. I have heard that across the board. They have been in my professional opinion stepped on last year really bad for the work they do. It hurts me as a professional educator what we had to give them last year–and make cuts to give them. Because I know what goes on in these schools day in and day out. Other people who make judgments who don’t spend time there day in and day out really concerns me.”

Vince Tolbert, the school system’s chief financial officer, outlined the current $126 million education budget at Tuesday’s work session. He said budget was primarily funded by the county, as that was 68.8% of the school system’s funding, while state aid accounted for 16.9% and federal aid accounted for slightly more than 13%. Tolbert reminded the board that in neighboring counties such as Wicomico, the numbers were reversed, with the state funding close to 70% of the school system budget.

According to Tolbert, 86.5% of the budget is spent on salaries and fixed charges. An additional 7.1% is contractual services, which is largely bus drivers.

“It’s people,” Tolbert said. “That’s where the resources are in the school system.”

Tolbert also acknowledged the $1.5 million budget surplus the board had at the end of the last fiscal year.

“I saw some headlines about the board hid $1.5 million,” he said. “We didn’t hide anything. It’s a good accounting practice to have some kind of fund balance.”

He added that typically, when the board had a surplus it was used to fund one-time capital items.

“Keeping those capital requests off of the county coffers and doing it in house with surplus money,” he said.

School board member Katie Addis asked if the surplus could be used to fund some of the items cut during the last budget year, such as summer school programs.

Tolbert said that had been discussed with county officials.

“We were told at the time that the votes weren’t there that they wanted that money to come back to the county for OPEB (other post-employment benefits), he said.

Addis said she’d been told differently.

“They indicated they’re waiting on a breakdown of information from you,” she said.

Tolbert said that information was being compiled.

As far as the coming year’s budget, Tolbert said officials were hearing that the school system would be receiving maintenance of effort (MOE) level funding—the same amount of funding on a per pupil basis as the previous year. He said MOE funding would be about $500,000 less than what the school system received for the current year, based on enrollment.

Restoring the programs cut when MOE funding was approved last year would cost $1.5 million, according to Tolbert. In addition, negotiations regarding salaries are ongoing.

Tolbert said the Blueprint for Maryland’s Future was also a concern, as it would require the starting teacher salary, which is currently about $52,000, to get to $60,000 in the next three years.

“If we do it the way we’ve always done it, that would require 6% COLAs for the next three years,” Tolbert said.

Nevertheless, he presented four potential scenarios at Monday’s meeting. He said that if the school system provided staff with a salary step but no COLA, there would be a budget shortfall of at least $5 million. With a salary step and a 2% COLA, there would be a budget shortfall of at least $6.7 million. A salary step and a 4% COLA would result in a budget shortfall of more than $8.5 million. A salary step and a 6% COLA would result in a budget shortfall of over $10.3 million.

He added that health insurance costs were also projected to increase potentially 12%.

Tolbert stressed that to get to the starting teacher salary mandated by the Blueprint the 6% COLA was needed.

“To get there, it’s either going to have to be additional revenue from the state or from the county, or it’s going to be reductions in the number of people working in Worcester County Public Schools,” he said.

Taylor said that negotiations were ongoing but that for example, in order to provide a step and a 6% COLA, he’d have to cut $10 million from the budget.

“A rule of thumb is for every 10 positions it’s $1 million…,” he said. “To get to $10 million, I’ve got to cut 100 positions out of Worcester County Public Schools.”

He said he would continue to advocate on behalf of students and teachers.

“I challenge you in your hearts today to remember this is about kids,” he said. “This isn’t about somebody we don’t like or somebody shouldn’t be in the position they’re in, the bottom line is, this school system is not about 1,2,3,4,5 or 7 people. It’s about 6,700 children.”

While the school board has its regularly scheduled monthly meeting on Jan. 16, the next budget work session is set for Feb. 6. The school board is expected to approve a budget at its Feb. 20 meeting.