Money is­sues men­ace schools

Tal­bot schools make progress, face fund­ing dilemma

The Star Democrat - - FRONT PAGE - By CON­NIE CON­NOLLY cconnolly@ches­pub.com

EAS­TON — It was a re­port that touted achieve­ments as well as “cold, hard facts” at Tal­bot County Pub­lic School’s state of the dis­trict meet­ing on Mon­day, Nov. 13, at the Tal­bot County Ed­u­ca­tion Cen­ter in Eas­ton.

School Su­per­in­ten­dent Kelly Grif­fith re­ported on progress to date on meet­ing the dis­trict’s three strate­gic plan goals of aca­demic ex­cel­lence, part­ner­ships and or­ga­ni­za­tional re­sources.

At­ten­dees in­cluded mem­bers of the board of ed­u­ca­tion and Tal­bot County Coun­cil, Eas­ton Mayor Bob Wil­ley, Del. Johnny Mautz, R-37B-Tal­bot, strate­gic plan­ning and foun­da­tion ad­viso- ry board mem­bers, school prin­ci­pals and par­ents.

De­spite the progress the dis­trict has made, the real- ity of liv­ing within re­stric­tive fund­ing for­mu­las at both the state and county lev­els in­creas­ingly puts the squeeze on pub­lic ed­u­ca­tion in the county, Grif­fith said.

“It’s amaz­ing how much we were able to ac­com­plish,” Grif­fith said at the end of a half-hour pre­sen­ta­tion. “We still have a lot to do. We have some ar­eas we need to con­tinue to work on.”

Some of those ar­eas in­clude con­tin­ued belt-tight­en­ing as well as lob­by­ing for changes in the way Tal­bot County raises tax rev­enue and the state of Mary­land dis­trib­utes tax rev­enue to school dis­tricts.

“We do get sec­ond low­est fund­ing in Mary­land, $1,794 (per stu­dent) be­low the state av­er­age. Our county coun­cil is strapped at times …. Peo­ple want to blame them, but there’s only so much money in the pot, es­pe­cially when your CPI (con­sumer price in­dex) is so low in your county,” Grif­fith said.

“If we were to re­ceive the state av­er­age (of $15,268), we would get over $8 mil­lion more,” Grif­fith said. “The (school) board asked me, why don’t we have scores

like Worces­ter County? If we re­ceived the same amount of fund­ing as Worces­ter County, we would re­ceive $20.8 mil­lion dol­lars more. And that’s the dif­fer­ence. You’d have more sup­port staff to help teachers, you’d bring your class sizes down, and you’d be able to of­fer (more) pro­grams.”

Grif­fith com­pared the dif­fer­ence be­tween neigh­bor­ing counties’ state fund­ing al­lo­ca­tions for ed­u­ca­tion. TCPS’s fis­cal year 2017 op­er­at­ing rev­enue of $54,546,575 was mainly funded by the county. “Al­most 68 per­cent of fund­ing is from the Tal­bot County Coun­cil due to a wealth for­mula the state has put in place,” Grif­fith said. The state pro­vides 25 per­cent, with very small per­cent­ages com­ing from fed­eral and other sources.

“Caro­line County is al­most ex­act op­po­site,” Grif­fith said.

“The value of our land is very high, but our in­come for the av­er­age worker is 17 per­cent be­low the state av­er­age,” Tal­bot County Coun­cil mem­ber Dirck Bartlett said.

“So even though we may be a ‘wealthy’ county in terms of land value, the in­come that peo­ple are bring­ing home is not that high; it’s be­low the state av­er­age. That’s why we pay 70 per­cent of the bur­den and why in Caro­line County, for ex­am­ple, the (num­bers are) re­versed. They get 70 to 80 per­cent from the state.”

Fis­cal year 2017 op­er­at­ing ex­pen­di­tures were $54,293,693. “Most of that money is spent on peo­ple and in­struc­tional ma­te­ri­als. Ben­e­fits cost a lot of money,” Grif­fith said. Em­ployee ben­e­fits ac­counted for 23 per­cent of ex­pen­di­tures while class­room and in­struc­tional ex­penses were 53 per­cent and sup­port ser­vices were 24 per­cent.

“Ge­o­graph­i­cally, we have 600 miles of wa­ter­front with necks, nooks and cran­nies buses travel, and it doesn’t make it easy,” Grif­fith said. “We have a huge penin­sula that goes all the way to Til­gh­man, and it doesn’t make it easy to try to fig­ure out what you do with your schools, how to uti­lize your schools.”

School board mem­ber Su­san De­lean-Botkin said that the teachers she comes in con­tact with “say they’re so proud to be a teacher (in the dis­trict). Just think what we could do if we were fully funded. We’re do­ing so much with so lit­tle and at some point, we’ve got to break through.”

“We do do a lot with a lit­tle,” Grif­fith said. “Just since I be­came su­per­in­ten­dent, we have cut — every year — staff, pro­grams, ma­te­ri­als and time, and we don’t have any­where else to cut,”

“It’s go­ing to re­ally hit hard this year, and I’m re­ally con­cerned about that — re­ally con­cerned about that,” Grif­fith said. “I mean, peo­ple are up­set this year be­cause we don’t have Echo Hill, and I’m like, that’s noth­ing com­pared to what’s go­ing to hap­pen next year. So, it’s go­ing to hit home when we start say­ing to peo­ple we can’t have uni­ver­sal pre-K, we can’t have field trips, we can’t do some of those things we want to do, and that’s one of the rea­sons we have to look at every school, every en­roll­ment, every pocket of the dis­trict. Be­cause we need to make sure that we are fis­cally re­spon­si­ble with tax­pay­ers’ money and that we are be­ing fair to teachers.”

As an ex­am­ple of the dis­par­ity be­tween two teachers’ work­loads, Grif­fith said, “I have a teacher at Eas­ton High School that has 441 stu­dents that she gives a grade to dur­ing the school year (she teaches four quar­ters). I have an­other teacher that has eight stu­dents all year and gives grades to eight stu­dents. There’s some­thing wrong with that pic­ture.”

Grif­fith dis­played a bar chart show­ing of 2017 prop­erty tax rates for all of Mary­land’s counties and Bal­ti­more City. Tal­bot County has the low­est tax rate in the state.

“We’re the sec­ond wealth­i­est county in the state, but the sec­ond low­est from the bot­tom in terms of per pupil fund­ing,” Grif­fith said. “There are two things that need to hap­pen. The Kir­wan Com­mis­sion is look­ing at the fund­ing for­mula; I’m a lit­tle ner­vous about that be­cause of some of things they’ve pro­posed. They feel that since we’re wealthy we should get less. The sec­ond thing is, we need to look at our prop­erty tax rate: 56 cents per hun­dred is al­most at the point of be­ing too low.”

“Our prop­erty tax is low. I’m not sug­gest­ing that we want to raise our prop­erty taxes to be the high­est, but we are about 30 cents lower than the next low­est county (Worces­ter). It’s a good thing, but it’s not good for ed­u­ca­tion and some of the ser­vices in our county. We have to take a look at that,” Grif­fith said.

“I’ve been try­ing to ed­u­cate par­ents about the Tal­bot County prop­erty tax rev­enue cap,” Grif­fith said as she dis­played a slide that spelled out how it works. “They keep think­ing the county has more money than they ac­tu­ally have.

“The dilemma is, you want to keep your prop­erty taxes low — and you do — but one of the prob­lems is, the lan­guage says it’s ei­ther two per­cent or CPI. Look what’s been hap­pen­ing the last sev­eral years: You’re only able to gen­er­ate rev­enue at .7 per­cent for prop­erty taxes. It re­ally straps the county coun­cil’s hands. They’re hav­ing to fig­ure out what we do with roads, emer­gency man­age­ment, schools,” Grif­fith said.

“We need to ed­u­cate peo­ple on what that means be­cause the bot­tom line is, as a school sys­tem, if I get the ex­act same amount of money this year as I got last year — which was nice, a great amount — and noth­ing else changes, I’m al­ready go­ing to have to cut this year’s bud­get by a mil­lion dol­lars just be­cause of health in­surance in­creases. And that’s with­out giv­ing peo­ple a raise, and you do want to keep your pay com­pet­i­tive. We do need to fig­ure out how to han­dle that dilemma and what would be a pro­posed so­lu­tion,” Grif­fith said.

Mayor Wil­ley had one of the last words. Af­ter com­pli­ment­ing TCPS stu­dents — “The kids are out­stand­ing. They’re re­ally some­body to be proud of” — he told Grif­fith, “You ought to take this show on the road be­cause most peo­ple I talk to don’t be­lieve it, and they need to see the hard, cold facts.”

PHOTO BY DEB­BIE GARD­NER

Tal­bot County Pub­lic Schools Su­per­in­ten­dent Dr. Kelly Grif­fith up­dated county of­fi­cials and mem­bers of the com­mu­nity of the progress be­ing made by the dis­trict de­spite peren­nial fund­ing chal­lenges.

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