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June 19, 2012

Who’s to blame in funding crisis?

Steve Gottlieb

Recently, the Board of County Commissioners was attacked by members of the teachers union, and certain members of the Frederick County Board for Education, for not providing enough funding to the school system for it to adequately run and provide living wages to teachers.


A look at some facts is in order. First let’s look at the continual increase in the budget for Frederick County Public Schools for the four years from FY 2009 through FY 2012. In that period the budget increased each year for a total of $24,186,817, with the average of just over $6 million per year. The school system’s budget for FY 2013 was proposed to be $515,104,568.


While it appears the FY 2013 budget is less than the previous year, in reality the county commissioners’ contribution is up by $863,933. The total number for the budget takes into account a budget surplus the school system found in the budget and is applying to FY 2013. This was explained previously by commissioners’ President Blaine Young.


So, what are the commissioners proposing to fund for education? Here is a quick list:


Maintenance of effort – This is the funding state law requires counties to fund each year on a per-student basis.


On top of maintenance of effort, the county commissioners propose a little more than $10 million dollars in in-kind services, which includes the school nurses. Again, the commissioners are proposing to fund more than in the FY 2012 budget above and beyond what is required by law.


The commissioners are also looking to add $8 million to the Capital Improvement Program so projects deemed essential and a priority by the Board of Education can be moved up; once again, going above and beyond mere requirements.


Also of interest to taxpayers should be the $17 million the commissioners are providing to the school system to service the debt on school projects.


On top of the items listed above there are some changes coming from Annapolis that will affect the county’s contributions to the school system. The biggest one is the shifting of teacher’s pensions from the state to the various school districts. While the commissioners are proposing to shift $3 million as a placeholder in the budget for that expense, a continuing expense not previously part of the county budget, it is important to remember this is not a one-time cost and it will continue to grow. State law will shift the entire teacher pension obligation to the 24 school districts over a four year period.


This needs to be brought to light because Frederick County Public Schools is more than 50 percent of the county’s budget. Even with all the other requirements faced by the commissioners, they managed to provide more than a $64 million in cash for additional funds to the school board since 2000. That is way above and beyond state mandated requirements. Also, it does not take into account the extras provided, such as in-kind services and extra contributions for capital projects and debt service.


What is really interesting is the current commissioners are continuing to increase contributions to education while bringing down the county’s overall expenditures, balancing the budget and providing a surplus to the taxpayers for the first time in years.


This was no easy task and required tough, principled decisions that put county residents ahead of political pandering and the purchase of votes for future elections.


So, if the commissioners can do it, why does there seem to be a problem with the school board and its ability to control expenses and increase efficiencies? Why do the citizens of Frederick County keep hearing that the Board of Education can’t provide teacher’s raises? Why do the school board and teacher’s union keep blaming the county commissioners?


These are all fair questions every citizen should ask and for which they should demand answers. The numbers clearly show that the Board of County Commissioners is providing much more support than required or acknowledged by the Board of Education, Frederick County Public Schools staff, the teacher’s union and even the local media.


Here are some things to think about and consider asking the school board and the teacher’s union.


·        Why is it necessary to hire a Director of Marketing while at the same time laying off 48 media aids? The new position of Director of Marketing was mentioned in a presentation from a candidate for Board of Education in this fall’s election. The release of 48 media aids was mentioned on the news.


·        Why was it necessary to build the new school board headquarters a few years ago instead of putting that money toward school projects?


·        How is it in the last couple of years Frederick County Public Schools found surpluses totaling $11 million while at the same time complaining they don’t have enough money?


·        Why does the school board approve raises for teachers when they have a one-time surplus? Raises are a recurring expense.  Is the Board of Education potentially obligating itself to expenses it can’t meet?


·        Why do the union and some school board members keep telling people we are going to lose teachers because of pay disparity between Frederick County and surrounding counties? There is no proof of such an exit and every year there are more applications for teaching positions than there are openings?


·        Why do all levels of teachers need to have raises at the same percentage rate? If the goal is to keep new teachers in the system and make starting salaries “competitive,” why not allow those at the bottom of the pay scale to get the biggest percentage increase while those at the top get less of a percentage? The union refuses to discuss that option.


·        Why, when asked a legitimate question by Board of Education member Brad Young on increasing class sizes to accommodate union demands for a pay raise, did union president Gary Brennan refuse to give a straight answer? After all, there is only a finite amount of money in the county, and there are corresponding consequences to any obligation of funds.


The truth is that problems with school system funding are not with the county commissioners, but with how funds are allocated once given to the Board of Education.


The school board can take lessons from our current Board of County Commissioners, which is not the enemy.  It is the answer to our county’s fiscal challenges.


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