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As Long as We Remember...

BOE President Responds to Ashbury's June 19 Column

June 24, 2002

While I respect Mr. Ashbury's opinions, some clarification is needed of the recent editorial regarding the Board of Education budget.

There is a lot of confusion about the BOE budget. The budget is large, and it is complicated. The actual budget is available for anyone who wants to see it, and the budget adoption and spending processes are transparent so everyone can see how it works, but the BOE has apparently not done a great job explaining it.

The many competing sets of data from the state only complicate the issue more. From what I see dealing with the budget every day, there is not an adequate level of funding to meet the needs we hear from the community. At the same time, I realize there are many different opinions on this topic.

That is why I have suggested that a group of citizens and organizations in Frederick County come together during the coming year to examine this issue. This group can take the proper time needed to fully understand the budget and needs, and can also help articulate an answer to a real question that needs to be answered: What level of education does Frederick County want to pay for?

Ultimately, it is still up the BOE (and the voters who elect the BOE) to decide how to prioritize and spend, but such a group could help us make sure we really understand the desires of the community.

I hear every day from people who are convinced they know what is best for education, yet many of their ideas are mutually exclusive. A group such as I am suggesting can help us sort through some of these conflicts.

That being said, I can clarify a few of the issues Mr. Ashbury raises. One issue involves the question of whether the county provides an adequate level of funding.

I looked into the apparent discrepancy Mr. Ashbury raises, and I think I can explain the differences. Mr. Ashbury is correct that the county provides an "average" amount of overall funding. The problem is that this number includes money for both operational needs and capital needs.

If Frederick County did not have to spend so much on new schools and renovations, and was able to use that money for operations, we would have a more than adequate budget. Frederick County experienced years of growth that did not pay for itself, and during which we did not build the schools we need. Now we are playing catch up.

The good news is the state says we build schools at a lower cost than almost everyone else in the state. The bad news is that the construction and renovation takes county money that could otherwise be used to provide adequate operational funding.

Maybe Mr. Ashbury is correct - if the state provided a fair share of construction and renovation funding, Frederick County would have enough money to operate the schools, but if you look purely at the operational budget, the money is simply not there.

Our current projection is that for fiscal year 2003, Frederick County will be 23rd out of 24 counties. This is where it appears the county is not adequately funding the school system. Is the county providing an average level of overall education funding? Yes. Is there an adequate amount of operational funding? I don't think so, but maybe the group I mentioned above will come to a different conclusion.

Mr. Ashbury raises the issue of textbook replacements. There are a couple of issues mixed up here. The BOE did include a line item for textbook replacements in the budget requests each of the past three years. It has never been funded. This money would have been used to purchase textbooks in response to the comprehensive curriculum audits.

What about the so-called "surplus" funds? No "surplus" money that was intended for textbooks was used to purchase vehicles or copy machines. Each school has accumulated some carryover funds to be used as determined by the school. This money was essentially a way for a school to save money through belt tightening over a period of years to enable the school to be able to purchase things like textbooks. This is all money that otherwise would have been spent on existing programs.

With this system of budgeting, the public gets those existing programs, plus these additional items saved for over time. It is a well-documented tool (and one normally espoused by conservatives who want to bring some business type incentives to the otherwise sinkhole of government spending) to help squeeze more out of a budget. And it was working.

The commissioners had a hard time grasping this concept, no matter how many times or ways we explained it. Maybe that is because they are mired in the old type of "spend it or lose it" government accounting that has proven such a bane to the productive use of taxpayer funds.

What about new vehicles and copy machines? Some of these items were indeed in proposed use of other carry over funds. It is difficult to operate a business with 4400 employees, over 58 locations, and a $300 million budget without operating copy machines and functional maintenance vehicles.

The vehicles in question were replacement maintenance vehicles, to replace the ones that had broken down beyond repair. Duct tape only works for so many years. These items were to be purchased from the carryover savings from the departments that would use them and not from any school budgets.

Could we simply take all that money and buy textbooks? We could do that, though it would not pay for all the needed textbooks, and it would mean even higher vehicle repair costs, more lack of maintenance, and more expensive outsourcing of copying. Nothing is free, we have to make priorities and allocate.

Making priorities is a big issue, and the main point of contention between the BOE and the commissioners. In the end, the BOE understands we have to live within our means. The county allocates the money, and we have to live with that. The problem comes when the commissioners attempt to not only allocate the money, but instead go ahead and prioritize and tell use exactly how to spend it.

The commissioners are simply not in the best position to know where the money is needed. That is the job of the BOE members who spend 10-30 hours a week solely on educational issues. If citizens do not agree with the BOE priorities, they can elect different BOE members, but I don't think the commissioners were elected to set the educational priorities.

This was the problem with the $260,000 food service allocation. The truth is the BOE determined that the money is not needed in food service, but was needed elsewhere in the system (in this case, for salaries for teachers and other staff). We told the commissioners this, but they did it anyway.

About three years ago, the BOE brought in consultants from a major food corporation, and learned how to improve the food service program. The result was that food service now makes money. It is a self-supporting fund. It does not need this allocation.

Did FCPS staff explain this well enough to the commissioners? Apparently not. The BOE will work on that, but, in the meantime, we are making it absolutely clear to the commissioners that the allocation to food service is a mistake.

So, why do I still think funding is inadequate? When everything sifted out this year, almost every dollar of new money went for salaries and benefits, or for increased costs of fuel and utilities for the schools. The only new program this year is the charter school, which will cost approximately $600,000 (the school itself will cost over $800,000 to operate, but $200,000 of this amount will be saved at the schools from which the charter school students are coming, resulting in the net cost of $600,000).

Most of the salary money is for new teacher positions because of continued growth. The benefit money is paying for continuing higher health care costs, to the tune of almost $4 million. And yes, the system is now working on other ways to try to control health care costs, but this kind of increase is a problem this year for every business, and the county government.

That is where the new money is going. Is there more money that can be saved in the system? I hope so. That is one reason the BOE ordered a 2% reduction across the board in non-salary expenses. This is belt tightening. And we are always looking for more savings. Perhaps the citizen group I talk about above will have some additional ideas.

I think the moral of this story is that there is always more to the story. There are good reasons for the actions taken by all the parties, whether by BOE members, commissioners, or even editorial writers. There are always going to be differences of opinion about priorities. There is never going to be one simple answer to these issues, but we can work on improving communication so that we are working from common ground.

I think the group I suggested could be one way to help improve communication, and I hope Mr. Ashbury, and a diverse group of citizens, participate in this group.

Ron Peppe, Frederick
(Editor's Note: Mr. Peppe is president of the Frederick County Board of Education.)

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