SALISBURY -- At the recent Wicomico County public schools budget hearing, school board members called out to the small audience to attend and be vocal at the upcoming County Council budget hearing -- lest the local government fund schools at a level near the minimum required by law.
Working with a different budget than what was submitted to the County Council by the County Executive's Office, the school system said it's amended budget includes a $38.7 million local appropriation request, which school officials said is fair and affordable for Wicomico County. It's a figure $2.5 million higher than what is required by law and $2 million higher than the original request sent to the County Executive's Office and County Council. Even if the higher $38.7 million figure is approved, the school system would still deal with local funding down more than $14.5 million than what it was three years ago.
"The amended budget does not allow us to gain what we lost," said school board President Ron Willey. "But it does allow us to make progress toward the most important goals for students."
District Superintendent John Fredericksen said the budget the school board is working with already includes the elimination of a supervisory and clerical position for next year, as well as reductions in after-school programs and bus transportation spending. He said it would also defer maintenance and renovations to schools, reduce the food service fund subsidy by 10 percent, reduce professional development programs and restructuring 12-month positions to 11-month positions.
He said other cuts would include the reduction of school-improvement initiatives, student health services, student mentoring program reductions and summer guidance services reductions as well as utility cost cuts found by closing facilities more often in the summer.
The cuts come as a voluntary retirement incentive program helps exchange more highly paid, more experienced employees for lower-paid, less-experienced employees. This tactic, aimed at reducing layoffs, was implemented in recent years as well. Then, it came along with major reductions in programs like adult education and in staff positions.
Fredericksen said if the county funded schools at the minimum required by law this year, it would be hard to avoid further staff member reductions.
The most recent budget wrangling between the school district and county this year came amid state legislative measures that many perceived as being aimed at Wicomico County in particular as a result of the more than $14.5 million reduction in local appropriations over previous spending levels.
The legislation in question forces a $14 million increase in school funding if the County Council doesn't increase local income tax to 3.2 percent, which it has already voted to do, as well as raise the local property tax to the maximum allowed by the county charter by July 1.
If that doesn't happen, the required local appropriation to the school system this year will be about $50 million, which even education officials said will mean long-term troubles for the county, considering the economic downturn.
School officials said this legislative action came as the state felt the county wasn't holding up its end of the bargain in funding schools -- as the state aims to be able to increase its contributions, without the local governments decreasing its in turn.
Indeed, Fredericksen said even though the school system is losing some $4.7 million in one-time fund balances used this year, it expects state aid to increase by $4.9 million due to enrollment increases and a 1 percent increase in the per-pupil allotment.
He said the partial pushback of teacher pensions from the state to local school boards would be phased in during a four-year period -- costing Wicomico County schools $2.17 million next year. Fortunately, he said the state would provide "revenue enhancements" to the county government next year as well -- to the order of $2.46 million, significantly higher than the cost of the pension pushback.
While that financial worry seems to be abated for now, he said without adequate funding from the county, the school system would face trouble closing achievement gaps between student subgroups and recruiting and retaining qualified teachers. He said it would also have trouble implementing the necessary programs and initiatives to promote a positive school climate and have a harder time implementing the new Common Core Standards, which are updating curriculums across the country.
Speaking to the importance of preserving school climate, district Director of Special Education Bonnie Walston gave an impassioned speech during the public comment session of the recent budget hearing. She commented on the importance of school staff members' ability to meet the needs of students "in crisis" due to economic, social and family troubles.
"Our community is strong, and we need to stand up for what is right," she said. "Education is the future. I don't want to have to give this county more money for jails --or for another ECI."
Following such public comments, board member Carolyn Elmore said it would be important for members of the public to speak out in support of education at the upcoming County Council budget hearing.
"Your voice speaks louder than ours. They expect us to take the position we hold," she said. "Your voice holds more credence. Bring your friends Tuesday night."