BOE 4/18 (copy)

The Worcester County Board of Education at an April meeting.

Budget negotiations between Worcester County government and the public school system took another turn on Monday, when the county commissioners filed what both sides consider to be a Public Information Act (PIA) request for a line-item budget from the Worcester County School Board of Education.

The request comes after the commissioners voted to not fund a $4.4 million requested increase to the schools budget and instead stick with the Maintenance of Effort (MOE) minimum, or not less than was spent last year. The request calls for detailed documentation of salaries and grant usage as well as a five-year expense report.

“It’s not meant to be taken as an escalation in tactics, though, Commissioner Jim Bunting said.

“(The PIA request) was more (about), when we ask for not just a summary of the budget but line-by-line budget, they sent us an extra 21 pages and it only amounted to about 4 percent of the budget,” Bunting said. (This was intended) to try to get the message across, suggesting that they consider this like a PIA request, we want the full budget (outline).

“It wasn’t done because we’re worried about finding anything wrong. We wanted a full copy of the budget broken down line by line, like we get from our department heads, and thousands of pages (long).”

Carrie Sterrs, the schools coordinator of public relations and special programs, confirmed the request in an email.

“The communication received asked that their request be considered a Public Information Act request, which we are now treating as such and complying in accordance with the Act,” she wrote.

When asked via text message if what the county provided the board with is an actual PIA request, public information officer Kim Moses said, “Yes. The request for more detailed financial information from the Board of Education should be considered a public information act request.”

A public information request, per state law, is a written document that specifies what information is being sought. The recipient has 30 days to comply or explain what it cannot.

Bunting added that, as of Wednesday, he wasn’t aware of any further developments.

Meanwhile, on May 16 at the monthly Board of Education meeting, school officials offered varying points of view over what the board can do to appease the county commissioners.

“There has been (a lot of) misinformation circulated over the past few weeks about the board of education,” Vince Tolbert, schools chief financial officer, said at the meeting.

He began by pointing out such facts as the board’s budget process beginning in late 2022 but that the county didn’t start asking about a more detailed budget until this spring, which he said put a lot of pressure on school officials to produce massive amounts of data in a short timeframe. 

Ninety-one percent of the schools budget is salary, Tolbert said. It’s not clogged with frivolous or otherwise unnecessary expenditures.

He also pointed out that the county commissioners selected a health insurance package at 9.5 percent the rate in premiums for county and board of education employees. The board gets its health insurance from the county.

The county’s health benefits committee recommended maintaining benefits at a 3.7 increase, but, Tolbert Said, the commissioners’ decision amounted to 26 percent of the board’s FY2024 local share budget request, essentially making it an unfunded mandate.

“One thing we did not expect — a major increase in health care this year,” Tolbert said.

“They did not want to change the plan or the formularies in our health care at the time. So we were not expecting that. In reality, from this current year’s budget to next year’s budget, that has increased our health insurance by $1.1 million. We did not realize we’d have that big of a hit.”

Unfunded mandates from the state’s Blueprint for Maryland’s Future total $600,000 of budget allocations, Tolbert said.

Addressing misinformation, he said that Maryland Department of Education data shows that Worcester County Public Schools is 21st out of 24 states in administration costs — about 1.49 percent of the budget. 

He claimed that board officials are being as transparent as they can be.

“We did meet with the county administrator and his assistant,” Tolbert said. “We did provide additional details, 21 pages … of what we gave them back in March. We are making every effort to give them the budget information that they need.”

The board’s vehicle fleet is not wasteful, he said, and is required for maintenance and transportation and actually saves the school system money — $21,190 annually over the alternative of reimbursing employees for mileage at the IRS rate of 65.5 cents per mile.

Tolbert also tried to dispel the idea that Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief Fund (ESSER) grant money could be used to offset the $4.4 million shortfall.

“Why not use that? Because that money won’t be there next year,” Tolbert said. “I’m a financial guy … it would not be prudent of me to recommend to the board to spend $4.5 million that’s ongoing money when it’s not going to be there next year. That would be a terrible financial decision. OK?”

Denise Shorts, chief academic officer for grades Pre-K through 8th, said she’s seen “disturbing” trends in county residents saying that the school system should hire fewer nurses and mental health personnel.

“Research shows children can’t learn if their basic physical and physiological needs aren’t being met,” Shorts said.

There were 68,797 nurse visits in the 2021-22 school year, she added, and seven social workers work with 186 students each, which is actually “behind.”

Board member Katie Addis, one of the more vocal voices in the community demanding better board transparency, asked Tolbert why they were having trouble furnishing the county commissioners with the five-year expense report if the school system goes through regular audits, something Tolbert detailed earlier.

He drew a comparison to Wicomico County Public Schools, which he said presents its budget in that five-year history format. Worcester, on the other hand, lays out its budget based on the prior year’s actual budget, the current year’s approved budget and the proposed budget for the next year.

“I told the county that if that’s something that the board wants to pursue going forward, it will take some time to build that the way that Wicomico has it,” Tolbert said. “They have about 2.5 times the number of people that I have in my office. They built that in years.”

Speaking about a 90-minute meeting they had with Weston Young, chief administrative officer for the county, WCPS Superintendent Lou Taylor said Tolbert asked if what he was providing that day was sufficient, and he was told it was.

“If there’s something on there missing that (the county) didn’t like, that’s between them and their administrator,” Taylor said. “If the administrator would call us back and say we need additional things, we’ll try to produce it.”

“All we hear is transparency. I get it. But we’ve not been able to get directly, ‘What are you requesting in full transparency?’ So we took some items, Vince redeveloped some things and we thought that we were on target until we found out that we’re not.”

But it does appear that the five-year outline — the subject of Addis’s prior questioning and the basis of the PIA — is the focal point of the county’s probing.

“Other than the fact that this has been very difficult, I think the world of (Taylor). He’s the best superintendent we’ve ever had,” Bunting said. “But we were faced with a situation where we didn’t have enough money to fund an extra $4 million this year and on top of that, last year we funded (the schools at) $3.3 million extra,  but finances were a bit different then. We wanted a (thorough) balanced budget and that’s what we’ve (asked for).”

Back at the meeting, Addis also inquired about the incentive retirement program, which helps persuade teachers to give as much notice as possible if they leave, falling under the salaries budget line.

“How does that fit into the salaries category when it’s not technically a salary that’s budgeted every year?” she asked. “That’s one of the items that 91 percent affixed cost, is technically not a fixed cost. That’s where the questions arise because there are items that are coming into the 91 percent that sometimes can be questionable.”

Tolbert said that the funds are included in instructional salaries and enable the county to “Get out and recruit the best teachers in Worcester County” as early as possible before other school systems snap them up.

Addis also insisted — this is not about devaluing teachers, bus contractors and school employees.

“There are a lot of budget items that are one-time items that can be used for those ESSER funds and then that money can potentially be replaced for salaries,” Addis said. "Is that ideal? No. But it keeps our staff for another year to figure it out. I think we really need to start having some hard conversations about what we’re going to do. 

“End of the day, all of that personnel are going to be the ones to feel the heat.”

Though the county commissioners have already voted on the board of education matter, they don’t cement the entire budget until June 6th, theoretically leaving a window open for Worcester County Public Schools to get its $4.4 million, or at least part of it.

Could that happen?

“Just my opinion, I’m committed to an MOE budget and what the MOE is this year,” Bunting said. 

“I have my feeling that’s the way the vote is going to go.”

This story appears in the May 26, 2023 print edition of the OC Today.

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