School board approves budget
ROCK HALL — The Kent County Board of Education on Monday unanimously approved Superintendent Karen Couch’s proposed budget, which calls for an increase in local funding to improve teacher salaries and better support the emotional and behavior needs of students. With the board’s vote in hand, Couch will next present her spending plan to the Kent County Commissioners for approval. That presentation is expected to be held at 6 p.m. Tuesday, April 17 in the commissioners hearing room at the R. Clayton Mitchell Jr. Building, 400 High St., Chestertown. Couch was absent from Monday night’s meeting, having been called away for an emergency. Jane Towers, supervisor of financial operations, and Gina Jachimowicz, supervisor of elementary education, presented the budget in Couch’s place. The district is seeking about $27.9 million for the fiscal year that begins July 1. That is a $597,650, or 3.5 percent, increase over the current year. The district also would see its fund balance — unspent money and a sticking point in county budget negotiations over the past few years — spent down to $500,000. In presenting the proposed budget at a public hearing April 5 held by the board, Couch said the district is seeing the benefits of consolidating its five elementary schools to three this year, by saving on
costs of two now-vacant buildings that could be surplussed back to the county. Couch said that while there have been instructional benefits with consolidation, such as having more than one teacher for each grade in all of the elementary schools, there are additional needs. “We’ve been able to look at ways of improving the instructional program, but we still see needs within our schools. And so this is what this budget is about, in terms of where do we see those gaps and where can we fill in some of those needs,” she said. Included in the budget is $670,915 to make salaries more competitive and to cover corresponding costs, such as retirement funds. Of the nearly $27.9 million sought, the funding request of the county is more than $17.8 million. The district is seeking an increase in maintenance of effort, the amount the state requires the county to fund schools, of $539,135. The budget also includes a request for an additional $58,515 from the county for non-recurring costs, mostly related to the establishment of a school bus depot, likely in Worton. Through maintenance of effort, the state requires counties to fund their corresponding school districts at the same per pupil rate as the previous year. If the Kent County Commissioners approve the district’s requested increase, they will have to pay the same amount divided by the number of pupils next year and every year after. Additional positions are included in the budget, notably helping teachers in the elementary schools, a guidance counselor and two social workers. At the April 5 public hearing, Couch said adding positions without changing the maintenance of effort rate is a challenge. “If you add additional staffing, then that’s going to add additional costs. And it’s difficult if you have to live within maintenance of effort and you see increased costs for utilities, for staffing, for maintenance of buildings, repairs, healthcare costs and proposed salaries. It’s pretty difficult to do that when you see a reduction due to a loss of student enrollment and also with trying to squeeze all of that out of maintenance of effort,” she said. Couch initially set the requested hike in maintenance of effort for next year at $367,095. The number rose to $539,135 following the April 5 public hearing. Rock Hall Elementary School Principal Kris Hemstetter and Galena Elemen- tary School Principal Amy Crowding were the only members of the public to speak at that hearing, which was attended almost solely by district employees. They sought the hiring of additional social workers. Hemstetter discussed research showing how lower levels of socio-economic status correspond to high- er levels of social problems, delinquent behavior and learning issues. She spoke about the high number of students that qualify for the free and reduced meals program in Kent County. “I’m in the schools every day and I see the effects of the status of our families, because I’m building relationships with those parents and also with those students,” Hemstetter said. The district added a social worker in the middle of the year to be shared by Rock Hall Elementary, Galena Elementary and Kent County Middle School in Chestertown, a move Crowding thanked the board for. “But not until she got there did I realize the positive impact that she could have,” Crowding said, praising the shared social worker. “Quite honestly, all children right now are struggling. There’s a lot of transitions. There’s a lot of pressure.” At the April 5 hearing, board members agreed on the need for full-time social workers at each elementary school and at Kent County High School in Worton. H.H. Garnet Elementary School in Chestertown already has one. The board also agreed to Kent County Middle School Principal Mary Helen Spiri’s request for an additional guidance counselor, preferably a woman. That position was already listed in Couch’s proposed budget. “I think it’s great. I think we’re somewhat taking the lead on this social worker because I think, as the years go on, we’re going to continue to see increased mental health issues with our kids. And it doesn’t matter what socio-economic status they come from,” said board member Jeff Reed, who is an educator. Other new positions al- ready in the budget included helping teachers at the elementary schools. The workload for principals at the three elementary schools increased as their student populations grew this year, a result of school consolidation. “Making parent contacts, helping with some of the referrals that you might get from some of the classrooms and/or the buses in the morning, it’s really helping in whatever way to manage the school, having another set of hands to manage the school and help the students,” Couch said of the helping teacher positions at the April 5 hearing. When the board reviewed the budget again Monday night, members were happy to see the social worker positions included. “I find it critical to get these social workers into these schools,” Reed said. “I hope the commissioners see the value in what we’re requesting as well.” The board tentatively approved contracts Monday night with the teachers association and administrators and supervisors association. Both included a restructured step increase and a cost of living increase. In discussing salaries Monday, Rock Hall resident Henry “Emerson” Cotton asked board members about recruiting more African American teachers. Ed Silver, supervisor of human resources, said the district strives to maintain a diverse workforce, but there is a shortage in Maryland of African Americans graduating college with teaching degrees, just 400 last year with 7,000 teaching positions to be filled. “There’s a lot of competition,” Silver said. “We appreciate the encouragement that our community has given us on this.”
Superintendent Karen Couch reviews her proposed budget for the Kent County Board of Education at a public hearing held April 5.