Bud­get work­shop turns into un­planned talk on ed­u­ca­tion

Kent County News - - FRONT PAGE - By JACK RODGERS jrodgers@thekent­coun­tynews.com

CHESTERTOWN — While Su­per­in­ten­dent Karen Couch was told her pro­posed bud­get was not go­ing to be talked about at the Kent County Com­mis­sion­ers’ Tues­day work­shop, nor did it ap­pear on the agenda, school fund­ing ended up be­ing the sub­ject of a lengthy dis­cus­sion.

What started as a con­ver­sa­tion about the Kent County Com­mis­sion­ers’ pro­posed cap­i­tal bud­get shifted to talk of the school bud­get when County Ad­min­is­tra­tor Shel­ley Heller said that to fully fund Couch’s re­quest — about $17.8 mil­lion — the com­mis­sion­ers would ei­ther have to raise taxes or sig­nif­i­cantly cut the county bud­get.

Hav­ing been in­formed that a con­ver­sa­tion was un­der­way on her pro­posed bud­get, Couch ar­rived about 30 min­utes into the work­shop. Also join­ing her at the meet­ing were her su­per­vi­sor of fi­nan­cial op­er­a­tions and su­per­vi­sor of hu­man re­sources.

The state re­quires the county to fund dis­tricts at the same rate per pupil as the pre­vi­ous year. This is called main­te­nance of ef­fort. If the com­mis­sion­ers raise main­te­nance of ef­fort — Couch is seek­ing a to­tal in­crease of $806,815 — they will have to fund schools at the same per-pupil rate the fol­low­ing year.

Prior to Couch’s ar­rival, Pat Mer­ritt, chief fi­nan­cial of­fi­cer for the county, said the to­tal dif­fer­ence be­tween the county’s rev­enue and ex­pen­di­tures ended in a deficit to­tal­ing about $4.2 mil­lion.

Adding a por­tion of county’s fund bal­ance to the deficit, which to­tals a lit­tle more than $1.5 mil­lion, the com­mis­sion­ers would need to find an ad­di­tional $2,027,718 to fully fund all re­quested cap­i­tal projects.

Com­mis­sioner Ron Fithian asked for a spe­cific break­down of the ed­u­ca­tion bud­get, say­ing if the dis­trict was pro­jected to have the money left over this year, it would most likely have the same amount left over the fol­low­ing year.

“I don’t mean to use it all, but you know I could see us­ing $400,000 or $500,000 of it, es­pe­cially when they’ve got $500,000 sit­ting there in fund bal­ance that if we’re wrong, they can take it out of there and make a dif­fer­ence,” Fithian said.

Com­mis­sioner Bill Short said he didn’t un­der­stand how pri­vate schools were able to fund their pro­grams on less than the county. He said the $14,000 per stu­dent with state and county money was al­most twice the tu­ition lev­els of some pri­vate in­sti­tu­tions.

“I’m get­ting it from all sides of the com­mu­nity to say, ‘Well what the hell’s go­ing on?’” Short said. “You know, you get the ones that want you to spend ev­ery dime you have into public ed­u­ca­tion. Then the other side of the com­mu­nity is like, ‘I don’t un­der­stand this.’ It’s to the point where I want a lit­tle more in­for­ma­tion.”

Fithian said he had heard from the com­mu­nity about dis­ci­plinary is­sues within the schools and that so­cial work­ers were mak­ing a le­git­i­mate dif­fer­ence in be­hav- io­ral is­sues.

Short said he had won­dered about sim­i­lar prob­lems, cit­ing the re­cent res­ig­na­tion of two school re­source of­fi­cers at the mid­dle and high schools.

“The way I’m hear­ing it is the ad­min­is­tra­tion wise is not sup­port­ing them,” Short said. “Things are re­ally break­ing down here and if they’re go­ing to sit there and think that $800,000 is go­ing to make a dif­fer­ence in ed­u­cat­ing th­ese chil­dren, I think I’ve fi­nally come to the point where I think they’re wrong.”

Also be­fore Couch’s ar­rival, Short said he heard from sev­eral par­ents over the last few months who had re­moved their chil­dren from Kent County Public Schools this year due to dis­ci­plinary is­sues. A few more he had spo­ken with would be re­mov­ing their chil­dren from the dis­trict by the end of the year, he said.

“So what’s that mean? Next year be­cause we lost 10 more kids we’re go­ing to have to give them an­other $100,000 be­cause they can’t keep their dis­ci­plinary prob­lem in check? To me, it’s get­ting old,” Short said.

Pick­rum also said he heard the re­source of­fi­cers re­signed due to a lack of ad­min­is­tra­tive sup­port. He said this was be­cause of com­mu­ni­ca­tion is­sues be­tween school ad­min­is­tra­tion and the of­fi­cers.

“Therein lies the is­sue with the school ad­min­is­tra­tion. If they’re not pro­vid­ing that sup­port to the re­source of­fi­cers then shame on them,” Pick­rum said. “I know Sher­iff (John) Price had a hell of a time find­ing a re­place­ment, so that’s not our fault, that’s not Sher­iff Prices’ fault, I lay that blame di­rectly on the school ad­min­is­tra­tion.”

Couch ad­dressed the is­sue of the school re­source of­fi­cers upon her ar­rival at the meet­ing.

She said the of­fi­cer at the high school sought a raise, but what was of­fered was not suf­fi­cient. She said the of­fi­cer at the mid­dle school — re­cently re­tired Rock Hall po­lice chief Steve Moore, who is leav­ing May 11 af­ter a month on the job — said his new po­si­tion did not have “enough ac­tion.”

Couch sug­gested the com­mis­sion­ers visit the schools.

“I will tell you that there is so much go­ing on at the mid­dle school,” Couch said. “You don’t even have to an­nounce when you’re go­ing there, just go there. Spend a day. You should go make your own judg­ment.”

Fithian said he thought prob­lems at home con­trib­uted to dis­ci­plinary is­sues within the dis­trict.

Couch said a so­cial worker hired this year al­ready im­proved the life of one stu­dent, who was found to be in an abu­sive sit­u­a­tion with a par­ent. She said th­ese so­cial is­sues were hap­pen­ing all over the coun­try and for some kids, school is the only re­prieve they get from abu­sive home lives.

“What I would say is there are so­cial sit­u­a­tions, trauma, that is play­ing into a child’s be­hav­ior and so I think you have to be care­ful about how you address dis­ci­pline,” Couch said.

Fithian asked about a pre­vi­ous salary in­crease for teach­ers and what the in­crease in spend­ing would be dif­fer­ent in the cur­rent bud­get.

Ed Sil­ver, dis­trict su­per­vi­sor of hu­man re­sources, said that while they had in­creased salaries to stay com­pet­i­tive pre­vi­ously, the cur­rent re­quest will fix “dead steps,” or in­creases in the yearly pay sched­ule that had no raise in pay.

Couch said there were about 14 sep­a­rate “dead steps” upon her ar­rival to the dis­trict.

Couch said the dis­trict did a com­par­i­son be­tween its own salary steps and the in­creases be­tween them, try­ing to raise salaries by a sim­i­lar rate across the board.

Sil­ver said the change in salaries has al­ready made a dif­fer­ence in re­cruit­ing teach­ers. He said he has seen pos­i­tive re­ac­tions from fu­ture grad­u­ates about the pro­posed salary step pro­gram.

Short asked about school en­roll­ment num­bers for next year and about how many kids the dis­trict would be los­ing. He asked if there was a game plan for the dis­trict if they didn’t re­ceive their en­tire re­quested fund­ing.

Couch said the Board of Ed­u­ca­tion would have to look at pri­or­i­tiz­ing po­si­tions and other needs if the to­tal re­quested funds were not fully sup­ported.

Short asked if the board would pri­or­i­tize hir­ing re­quested so­cial work­ers in­stead of new teach­ers and, in turn, in­creas­ing class sizes.

“We’ve been told kids have chal­lenges, so to me, teach­ers can’t han­dle those chal­lenges, the pri­or­ity should be the so­cial work­ers and then have a few ex­tra kids in the class­room,” Short said.

Fithian said he was sup­port­ive of fund­ing the so­cial worker po­si­tions and much of the re­quested funds for salary in­creases. He said he wasn’t in sup­port of a pro­posed pro­gram for 3-yearolds, which he be­lieves is a du­pli­ca­tion of ser­vices al­ready of­fered in the county.

Mer­ritt asked Couch if the bud­get was be­ing pre­sented as hav­ing a sur­plus.

Jane Tow­ers, the dis­trict’s su­per­vi­sor of fi­nan­cial op­er­a­tions, said the dis­trict would roll over its re­main­ing fund bal­ance into the fol­low­ing fis­cal year. She said the Board of Ed­u­ca­tion had looked at mul­ti­ple op­tions to fix spend­ing to con­tinue hav­ing a sur­plus, in­clud­ing putting the dis­trict’s heat­ing con­tract out to bid with the county.

“You’re right, in pre­vi­ous years we had an abun­dance of fund bal­ance, but you’re not go­ing to see it that much this year and you’re not go­ing to see it that much go­ing for­ward,” Couch said.

PHOTO BY JACK RODGERS

Com­mis­sioner Bill Short talks about the ed­u­ca­tion bud­get dur­ing a work­shop Tues­day.

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