Pub­lic safety, ed­u­ca­tion pri­or­i­tized at pub­lic hear­ing

Res­i­dents, county of­fi­cials sound off on bud­get for first time

Maryland Independent - - Front Page - By MICHAEL SYKES II msykes@somd­news.com

Pub­lic safety and ed­u­ca­tion are nor­mally the top pri­or­i­ties when bud­gets are cre­ated for lo­cal ju­ris­dic­tions, but ac­cord­ing to some res­i­dents and of­fi­cials there may not be enough of a ded­i­ca­tion to ei­ther.

Dur­ing a pub­lic hear­ing on the county’s fis­cal 2017 bud­get Tues­day evening, Charles County Sher­iff Troy Berry (D) said if pub­lic safety does not get more of a fund­ing in­crease, the sher­iff’s of­fice may have to con­sider re­call­ing school re­source of­fi­cers from schools around the county.

Berry said there are 18 cur­rently com­mit­ted to

the school sys­tem. He said he is com­mit­ted to hav­ing those of­fi­cers in the school sys­tem, but if there is no ad­di­tional staffing, they may have to re­al­lo­cate re­sources.

“I do not want to pull the of­fi­cers out of school, but if I do not get any fund­ing, I may not have a choice,” Berry said.

County Com­mis­sioner Ken Robin­son (D) said he re­spects the po­si­tion Berry is in. He hopes the county com­mis­sion­ers can get data on the sit­u­a­tion, he said, and cre­ate a plan to add ad­di­tional of­fi­cers to the Charles County Sher­iff’s of­fice.

There will not be 23 offi- cers sworn in dur­ing one given fis­cal year, Robin­son said, but there can be a plan put in place.

“I’m ab­so­lutely open to the dis­cus­sion. It needs to be data driven and I know Sher­iff Berry is open to share cer­tain re­ports he is in pos­ses­sion of,” Robin­son said. “If we come up with a multi-year plan, we could ac­com­plish that.”

Berry said he and the of­fi­cers’ job of keep­ing the county safe is not “an easy” one, but it is some­times “thank­less.”

In the county’s pro­posed bud­get, 67.5 per­cent of the $375,292,600 gen­eral fund ap­pro­pri­a­tions are go­ing to the pub­lic school sys­tem and the sher­iff’s of­fice. The school board will get 45.4 per­cent and the sher­iff will get 22.1 per­cent.

Both en­ti­ties are get­ting net in­creases in fund­ing over last year, but both are also ask­ing for more of an in­crease than what the county is propos­ing.

The sher­iff’s of­fice is re­quest­ing an $8.3 mil­lion in­crease from its $79 mil­lion gen­eral fund al­lo­ca­tion last year. Berry said he would like to have more struc­ture in place for how the of­fice grows over the next few years and would like to add 23 more of­fi­cers to his staff.

“We must make a com­mit­ment and we must do it now,” Berry said.

John El­liot, pres­i­dent of the Fra­ter­nal Or­der of Po­lice Lodge 24, said law en­force­ment is be­ing at­tacked around the country and it makes for an un­com­fort­able sit­u­a­tion for po­lice every­where.

Of­fi­cers do not join law en­force­ment to be­come rich or fa­mous, El­liot said, but to serve the peo­ple in their com­mu­ni­ties. Charles County is “fall­ing be­hind” and has been able to do “more with less” but that has to change, he said.

“We can do so much more,” El­liot said.

Mau­reen Woodruff, a mem­ber of the board of di­rec­tors for the Charles County Cham­ber of Com­merce, said she and the cham­ber fear the county’s bud­get does not re­flect the pri­or­i­ties the county should have.

“Keep taxes in check, fully fund ed­u­ca­tion, fund pub­lic safety and re­lieve traf­fic con­ges­tion by build­ing new roads,” Woodruff said.

In 2010, the county’s bud­get ded­i­cated 74 per­cent of its re­sources to pub­lic safety, in­clud­ing ser­vices be­yond the sher­iff’s of­fice, and ed­u­ca­tion. In this year’s pro­posed bud­get, which is sub­ject to change, the county is ded­i­cat­ing 71.2 per­cent of it’s gen­eral op­er­at­ing funds to those de­part­ments.

This is a huge dif­fer­ence, Woodruff said, and rel­a­tive to other ar­eas puts Charles County be­hind in spend­ing. If the county wants to at­tract busi­nesses and de­vel­op­ment, she said, that has to im­prove.

“Schools and pub­lic safety are crit­i­cal el­e­ments for em­ploy­ers and fos­ter­ing eco­nomic de­vel­op­ment,” Woodruff said.

On Sept. 30, 2011, Charles County Pub­lic Schools had a stu­dent head count of 26,850. Since then, the pop­u­la­tion has de­creased slightly to 26,307.

Vir­ginia Mc­Graw, chair­woman of the Charles County Board of Ed­u­ca­tion, said de­spite stu­dent pop­u­la­tion to­tals re­main­ing rel­a­tively flat, pub­lic ed­u­ca­tion needs more fund­ing to in­crease spe­cial pro­grams for stu­dents with spe­cial needs.

“We are wel­com­ing a grow­ing num­ber of stu­dents who need spe­cial pro­grams to re­mov­ing learn­ing road­blocks,” Mc­Graw said.

The school sys­tem had a 16.5 per­cent in­crease in limited English pro­fi­ciency stu­dents, Mc­Graw said. More stu­dents are ap­ply­ing for free and re­duced meals, she said, and the spe­cial needs stu­dent pop­u­la­tion has in­crease to 6.9 per­cent.

“Th­ese changes have caused costs to con­tinue to rise,” Mc­Graw said. “We have a lot of work to do to close the achieve­ment gap be­tween stu­dents.”

The board would like to ex­pand pro­grams like an English lan­guage learn­ing pro­gram for stu­dents at Mau­rice J. McDonough High School, Mc­Graw said. And they would also like to have more projects for col­lege and ca­reer readi­ness, she said.

De­bra Hann, a teacher in the Charles County Pub­lic Schools sys­tem, said she has to con­stantly re­cy­cle items or spend her own money to find items of in­ter­est for her stu­dents to make her class in­ter­ac­tive.

She has been teach­ing for 34 years, Hann said, which is “hav­ing fun” for her. But she al­ways has to think of ways to im­prove her school and class­room.

Hann said she’d like to be “laid out on a beach” some­where and tan­ning, but for now, she has to set­tle with her back­yard. That can change, she said, if the county com­mis­sion­ers in­crease fund­ing to the school sys­tem.

“My chil­dren are worth it,” Hann said. “I have third graders at my school that have a bet­ter phone than I have. I do spend a lot of money on my class ... I’m very lucky to be a teacher in Charles County. So please go and fund the teach­ers.”

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