SNOW HILL – Teachers, salaries and technology dominated the Board of Education’s budget presentation at Wednesday’s county budget work session.
Dr. Jon Andes and staff spent two and a half hours going over the schools budget and answering questions from the County Commissioners. The Board of Education is requesting $70.7 million, which is 36 percent of the total requested budget of $197.6 million.
The county anticipates revenues significantly lower than requests, with projections calling for $174.1 million coming in to fund the fiscal year 2008 budget. The commissioners will need to cut $23.5 million or raise taxes, which they have said they will not do.
Worcester County’s wealth in real estate means the county schools get much less financial support from the state than neighboring jurisdictions. The county government provides roughly 74 percent of school funding, with 19 percent from the state. Federal funding and grants round out the school board funding.
“We do everything we can to drive those dollars right into the classroom,” said Andes, who added 69 percent of the budget is directed to instructional programs.
Andes extolled the virtues of the school system, which graduates over 95 percent of high school students on time, and sees 80 percent of graduates go on to further education.
Worcester County schools also have the second lowest drop out rate in the state. All schools are accredited, and all meet Maryland adequate yearly progress goals.
The Board of Education is asking for salary increases for teachers and staff averaging 7.5 percent.
“We all know the difference to our children is having a high quality excellent teacher in the classroom,” said Andes.
Another major request for the schools is funding to make sure each school has three mobile computer labs and that all schools have wireless Internet access.
“Without your support we simply could not put the technology into our buildings,” Andes said.
A significant, though less pricey, request is for a land use study at Showell Elementary School to determine what part of the 30-acre property is buildable for future renovations.
Commissioner Judy Boggs took the lead in questioning some requests.
The school system is asking for funding for 13 new teachers, yet the student population is expected to be stable. Boggs asked why more teachers are needed. The commissioners agreed to 23 new teaching positions last year, she pointed out.
Only four requested teaching positions are to serve increased numbers of students, said Andes, while the other positions are needed to teach new, required subjects.
“We have probably some of the smallest class sizes in the state of Maryland,” Andes said.
Boggs also expressed some concern that a program begun last year in the Pocomoke area schools, Family/School Connections, was duplicating work also done by social services.
The program works with about 45 children who are struggling in school on ensuring that a child has the tools to succeed academically, from school supplies to a place to work on homework, to working with the family to establish rules about doing homework, said Andes. The program also refers families to services when they need them.
“I personally believe they complement each other,” he said.
Commission President Jim Purnell recalled when the pilot program was funded last year, the commissioners said they would fund programs in the middle and northern parts of the county as well if the pilot was successful.
“I don’t think we should go back on our word,” Purnell said.
Boggs said she was asking for clarification. “That’s what we’re here for, to understand these programs,” she said.
One commissioner said she was comfortable with expanding the pilot program.
“It really works hand in hand. It’s not a duplication,” said Commissioner Louise Gulyas.
Andes said programs such as Family Connections were achieving the desired results.
“What we’re trying to do is intervene before a pattern becomes a habit,” Andes said.
Boggs also asked Andes to elaborate on a pilot foreign language program slated for Ocean City Elementary School (OCES).
“The best place to learn a foreign language is when you are six or seven,” said Andes.
However, the commissioner voiced concern it could be too much too soon.
“I want our children still to get a good balance and I’m thinking this may overburden them,” Boggs said.
OCES Principal Irene Kordick explained that the language lessons would be infused into other lessons and common phrases used in school would be taught rather than how to conjugate a verb.
“I hope you understand why tough questions have to be asked,” said Boggs. “We are charged with the responsibility of spending our tax payers’ money.”
The commissioner said there was no alternative to cutting some of the requested budget.
“Frankly, if we don’t cut the budget, we will have to raise the property tax 14.5 cents,” Boggs said.