Money issues menace schools
Talbot schools make progress, face funding dilemma
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.”
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.