Budget workshop turns into unplanned talk on education
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.
Commissioner Bill Short talks about the education budget during a workshop Tuesday.