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June 19, 2002

BOE Budget Not Underfunded, Just Overspent

John W. Ashbury

Why is it that the Frederick County Board of Education, instead of attempting to cut back on its spending in the areas that are vastly overfunded, whines and cries over what it perceives as a woeful allocation from the county commissioners.

For most of the past eight years, Frederick County Public Schools (FCPS) has received taxpayers' dollars from Winchester Hall far in excess of what the administrators and school board members want us to believe.

For example, this year the commissioners are funding nearly $18.7 million in debt service on bonds sold to fund county projects. Of that, $11.7 million is for new schools and major school renovations. But the school system doesn't take that money from its budget. It comes out of the county's operating budget and is not counted as a cost of education. The county projects it will receive $3.8 million from impact fees, but that still leaves $7.9 million to be paid from the county's general fund.

Recently published figures show that Frederick County is exactly on the state average in education funding. "Frederick County is meeting the statewide average for education tax effort," says Tina Bjarekull, deputy state superintendent for finance.

"In other words," she continues, Frederick is not doing better than other counties, but it is not doing worse on average."

Major counties that fall below Frederick in tax effort include Anne Arundel, Harford, Washington, Carroll and Charles.

So, where's the beef? Harford County is the county most like Frederick in the state. Its size is slightly smaller and its population is slightly higher. And it ranks below Frederick in funding for education.

But Frederick County education officials complain that per pupil spending in Frederick County ranks 22nd in the current year and will fall to 23rd or 24th in Fiscal Year 2003.

So, if figures from the Maryland Department of Education are correct, the Frederick County government provides FCPS with enough funding to rank 16th in the state in actual dollars per pupil, but the county is lower than that in total per pupil spending.

This simply means that Frederick County is not getting its fair share of tax revenues from the state for education. And when the state adds additional mandates, it allocates Frederick County fewer dollars per student to institute that mandate than it does other counties.

How can the commissioners be at fault for that? Ron Peppe, president of the local school board, contradicts the state figures and says the shortfall in FCPS funding is in what FCPS gets from the commissioners. One of his major complaints deals with textbook replacement.

But perhaps Mr. Peppe should look at what the administrative staff attempted to do earlier this spring before he complains that the county hasn't funded textbook replacement.

A large portion of the money the school system told the commissioners was "surplus" and which FCPS wanted to spend on things like a new truck or two and some new copiers for the administrative staff, came from unspent funds allocated for new textbooks.

We shouldn't speak out of both sides of our mouths. Perhaps Mr. Peppe has been sucked into the whirlpool of fuzzy math practiced by the school system for years. The only person who really knows where all the money goes is Hal Keller, finance director for FCPS. Even Superintendent Dr. Jack Dale would be hard pressed to know where all of it goes.

Commissioner Jan Gardner counters the educrats by saying that the BOE got $19 million in new funding this year. She finds it hard to understand that that level of increase is "inadequate." Most would agree.

If FCPS gets 1,000 new students in the fall, this level of increase would indicate that the school system will get $19,000 per new student. And if we take an average of $7,500 being spent per student system wide, then the BOE has $11,500 per new student, or a total of $11,500,000 in new funds to give pay raises and to enhance programs.

Being a member of the Board of Education is a thankless job. The hours are long and the workload is tremendous at certain times of the year. And the job is made all the more difficult when the superintendent's staff withholds valuable information from the board members, or tempers their comments to coincide with what they think the superintendent wants. They work for the superintendent, not the school board. He can hire and fire, and punish for perceived "low job performance."

So we have certain taxpayer-funded employees kowtowing to the superintendent to the detriment of the education the children are receiving.

Now, instead of trying to work with the commissioners directly to reach a compromise on a funding issue for next year dealing with the food service allocation, people in high places in FCPS are orchestrating a campaign of phone calls and emails to the commissioners to get them to change their minds. It involves about $250,000.

Wouldn't it be better for our school system to play nice with the commissioners instead of calling them a bunch of bad actors who don't understand the problems the school system is facing?

We will elect four new members of the Board of Education in November. At the same time we will elect a new Board of County Commissioners. Yes, it is likely that some of them will be the same; but we know for sure that at least two new commissioners will be elected, and the same number of BOE members will be replaced.

The BOE can go to the commissioners during the school year and ask for budget transfers. Ask for the change in the food service budget in December. You will still have seven months to go in the fiscal and school year. So what's the hurry? Why do you, as BOE members and flunkies for the superintendent's staff, want to put additional pressure on the commissioners and further alienate those who still hold the purse strings?

Doesn't make a lot of sense in this corner.

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