SNOW HILL – The education portion of the Worcester County public budget hearing Tuesday was tame compared to years past, with most speakers thanking the Worcester County Commissioners for less cuts than originally mandated, rather than haranguing elected officials for more funding.
The education budget for next school year has been the center of controversy since January, when the school system first presented cuts that did not meet a county mandated three percent reduction. In March, the Board of Education declared it could not pass a 3-percent cut budget, as the state requires a certain level of continued funding.
The commissioners recently withdrew a request to the state Board of Education to cut local school funding below the required amount. Many see that decision as an implicit approval of the Maintenance of Effort funding. The County Commissioners have not voted on an official decision on school funding, however, and the school budget is not set.
The Board of Education requested $75.5 million from Worcester County for next fiscal year, as compared to the current year’s actual county provided operating budget of $75.9 million, a total decrease of less than 1 percent. Many cuts to the education request were offset by increased fixed costs for energy and other necessities. With construction debt and retirement benefit payments made by Worcester County, the proposed education allocation takes up 53.7 percent of the county budget.
“We are all going to remain calm and polite,” said County Commission President Louise Gulyas before testimony began on the requested education budget.
Worcester County Superintendent of Schools Jon Andes took the microphone first to an ovation from the crowd. He extolled the Worcester County schools, including a high graduation rate, low drop-out rate, many Blue Ribbon schools and high standardized test scores.
“We recognize these are tough economic times,” Andes said. The superintendent pointed out that the maintenance of effort budget, while better than the three percent cut budget, still cuts $1.7 million from 81 line items.
“We thank and praise you for giving us the funding to help us create one of the top performing schools systems in the state of Maryland,” said Andes.
Michelle Schacter a parent with children in Worcester County schools and a member of the special education school improvement committee, was the first of many to thank the County Commissioners for withdrawing its pursuit of a waiver of the Maintenance of Effort level funding required by the state. “We believe that was absolutely the right thing to do,” said Schacter.
“I just want to say thank you and you know why,” said parent Ginger Gillis, who lobbied commissioners for a new technical high school for years, which opened its doors this fall. “We appreciate the time and the effort you’re giving to the budget because it’s a tough, tough one.”
“We understand in tough times like these, everyone will be called upon to do their part,” said Terry Springle, president of the Worcester County Teachers Association (WCTA), which accepted a contract this year that flat funded teacher salaries and no raises, cost of living or step increases, or longevity bonuses.
Not all members of WCTA are happy about that, but the contract was approved by the membership. “We do not completely subscribe to the idea of having the county balance the budget on the backs of the county employees,” said Springle.
The WCTA president also thanked the commissioners for the expected Maintenance of Effort level of funding.
“Our membership was extremely concerned about the cuts,” Springle said. “They were concerned they literally would not be able to do their jobs. … The money you have allocated will not be wasted. It will be carefully spent. It will make a difference.”
“You make Worcester County Schools and students a priority,” said Terry Bates. “We are proud to be in Worcester. Thank you for all you do and continue to do for the students of Worcester County.”
Beth Bridgens thanked the commissioners for doing the right thing in listening to voters and withdrawing the maintenance of effort waiver. “Tonight, on this issue, you rock,” Bridgens said.
Education comments took just 40 minutes this year, compared to previous years that saw education comments cover triple that time.
The comments “were all very, very constructive…I just want you to know we heard you this evening,” said Gulyas.