NEWARK – It was a case of good news, bad news this week as county school officials learned an increase of about $640,000 in state aid for education was heading to Worcester, but roughly $584,000 still needs to be reconciled before a formal budget can be presented to the Worcester County Commissioners later this month.
The Worcester County School Board this week began taking a line-by-line look at reductions in its proposed fiscal year 2011 budget during a work session on Tuesday. The overall spending plan for fiscal year 2011 includes unrestricted revenue of roughly $89 million, of which about $72 million, or approximately 81 percent, comes from the county. Due to a slight decrease in enrollment, the county allocation needed to meet Maintenance of Effort requirements is being reduced by about $615,000 this year.
Preliminary calculations from the state show an increase of about $640,000 in state aid for Worcester this year. However, the local school system is anticipating increases in operating expenses, including utilities and other fixed costs, of around $1.2 million. As a result, when school board members sat down for a budget work session on Tuesday, they were looking at further cuts totaling about $584,000.
School board members, with Superintendent Dr. Jon Andes and Chief Financial Officer Vince Tolbert, reviewed the proposed fiscal year 2011 budget line by line to determine where best to make the needed cuts. During budget deliberations last year, layoffs and furloughs were debated as a means to further reduce the budget. This year, however, those options appear to off the table, or at least a measure of last resort.
“The one thing on everybody’s mind is ‘do I have a job?’” said Board of Education member Donnie Shockley. “I’m not crazy about cuts in supplies, but can we get to our Maintenance of Effort requirement without cutting jobs?”
Andes explained of the roughly $88 million budget, around $79 million is invested in salaries, wages and benefits, or what he characterized as “people” costs. That leaves about $9 million in “non-people” expenditures from which any more cuts will have to be made.
“That $9 million is not a lot to work with,” he said. “We have some very tough decisions to make. We need to put together a budget that avoids any layoffs or furloughs.”
School officials point to Worcester County’s top rankings among other school districts in the state as reason enough not to tamper with personnel issues. School Board President Bob Hulburd said he was concerned continued cuts to other resources could deter Worcester’s ability to recruit and retain top teachers and staff.
“It’s not by chance that we’ve had the successes we’ve had in terms of rankings in the state,” he said. “Cutting resources makes it more difficult to recruit, hire and retain our wonderful teachers and staff. I’m afraid we’re going to lose good people as we go forward, and we have to be aware of that as we continue to reconcile this budget.”
Andes agreed the local school system’s success was directly related to the quality of its teachers, staff and administrators. He also voiced concern deeper cuts to the budget put that in jeopardy.
“The reason for our success as a school system is the people,” he said. “The reason we’re number one in the state is because of the people working in our school system. It’s a challenge. It’s the question that keeps me awake at night. How can we cut this budget without disrupting that?”
Board member Bob Rothermel said the immediate concern was reconciling the fiscal year 2011 budget, but decisions made this year can have a domino effect moving forward.
“We’re looking at this year, but we always have to look ahead,” he said. “We are at or near the top and have to find a way to stay that way.”
With that said, school board members began a category-by-category review of the proposed budget and the estimated cuts needed to close the gap. For example, the cuts to textbooks and other instructional materials came in at around $470,000 after nearly $300,000 was cut from the category last year.
“How long can we keep making reductions in textbooks before we start to compromise the quality of education?” asked Board member Dan Dryden.
Assistant Superintendent for Instruction Dr. Richard Walker explained cuts to textbooks would exacerbate when state-mandated curriculum changes are handed down next year.
“The big issue is when the curriculum changes,” he said. “We could not sustain these cuts with the kinds of mandates we have coming our way. Unfortunately, as is often the case, the mandates are unfunded.”
On the good news side, the proposed budget includes no major cuts to the maintenance of plant category.
“When compared to the other 24 jurisdictions, we’re at or near the bottom in terms of cost per pupil on maintenance,” said Andes. “A large part of that is our excellent maintenance staff, but our students respect their school buildings and take care of what they have. Generally, if something is broken, it’s because it got old. We have very little vandalism.”