Frederick County commissioners say school budget unrealistic -- Gazette.Net


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This story was updated on Jan. 22, 2013.

A budget proposed last week by county Schools Superintendent Theresa Alban is wishful thinking, according to two members of the Frederick County Board of Commissioners, who say the proposal is unrealistic in lean economic times.

At a pep rally on Thursday that featured a jazz ensemble, a drum line, dancers, cheerleaders and high school mascots, Alban unveiled a proposed operating budget for next year that seeks a $24.25 million jump over current spending.

“We are beyond lean,” Alban told a crowd of nearly 600 people gathered at Tuscarora High School in Frederick.

The proposed $547,341,342 budget — which would be a 4.6 percent increase over fiscal 2013 — focuses on attracting and retaining top teaching talent, upgrading technology throughout the county and new security staffing and equipment.

The Frederick County Board of Education is scheduled to discuss the budget at its meeting Wednesday.

Alban knows it will be difficult to come up with that money in a budget cycle in which the commissioners have indicated they are inclined to only provide the school system with the state-mandated minimum, known as maintenance of effort.

However, Alban’s budget requests $15 million more than the school system would receive in fiscal 2014 under a maintenance of effort budget. Of that, $10 million would go to employee salaries and $5 million to cover the increased cost of health care for workers.

The manner in which the $10 million would be spent also is subject to school system negotiations with the Frederick County Teachers Association. Collective bargaining began this month, and the two sides are scheduled to meet for a second time Friday.

About 52 percent of the county’s budget goes to Frederick County Public Schools. The commissioners are the funding authority for the school system, but the school board decides how to spend its funds.

The county is scheduled to provide $244.3 million to schools for the next fiscal year, a $200,000 increase as required under state law to account for a net gain of 40 students over the previous year.

Commissioners’ President Blaine R. Young (R) called the proposed budget “a slap in the face of the taxpayer.”

It’s not that anyone is against funding education, but Alban’s proposed budget is unfeasible with the county facing a $31.6 million structural deficit, Young said.

“It’s not realistic at all,” he said. “I’d suggest they start buying PowerBall tickets.”

But teachers union President Gary Brennan said that funding the school system at maintenance of effort will not meet its basic needs.

If the commissioners cut Alban’s proposal by $15 million, “Then they should say, we don’t care about the decline of the school system,” Brennan said.

Such cuts will eventually result in a “mediocre to inferior” school system, he said.

Commissioner Billy Shreve (R), the liaison to the school board, was also dismissive of Alban’s proposal.

“Unless she is a magician, she needs to immediately start to write another budget,” he said.

There’s a difference between writing an ideal budget and one that deals with the amount of money that is actually available, he said.

Shreve compared the schools to a teenager constantly asking for gas money.

“They just keep holding their hand out and asking for more,” he said.

School Board President Jean A. Smith said there is little the board can do to ensure Alban’s budget is preserved if the commissioners stand firm against providing any additional funding.

“We’ve got to start out asking for what we need, and really show that we need it,” as opposed to presenting a budget proposal that is in line with commissioners’ expectations, Smith said.

County schools are also scheduled to receive $264.2 million from the state, a 1.4 percent increase of $3.7 million over last year’s funding, and $17.7 million in federal funding.

The county funding component also includes a $1.6 million increase to help pay for teachers pensions, which were shifted from the state, $4 million from sales of four surplus properties and $700,000 more in in-kind services, totaling $6.5 million, or a 2.7 percent increase.

But Alban argued that maintenance of effort doesn’t really mean maintaining anything. It means you have to continue to cut to meet the budget, rather than investing in students’ futures, she said.

“Maintaining isn’t what we want to do for our students,” Alban said.

Three of the past five budgets have been constructed under maintenance of effort, leaving no room to push student achievement even higher, Alban said.

Maryland ranked Frederick County schools No. 1 in its most recent school performance data, while the state was ranked at the top nationally by Education Week for the fifth straight year.

“[Young] can’t expect that we’ll be the No. 1 school system if he’s reducing the available dollars to fund the system,” Brennan said.

Alban said she worries that the county is at a critical juncture.

Cuts made in recent years have made it tough to meet the financial burdens of unfunded mandates from state and federal governments, she said.

Alban’s proposed budget includes a $15.7-million gap between expenses and revenues, so she and the seven-member school board must work over the coming months to balance it as revenue projections become more solid and expenses get another look.

“That’s going to be the hard part,” she said.

Alban’s budget provides about $6.5 million in additional money for instructional salaries, along with a $2.5 million increase for special education.

Alban said she also wants to focus on technology, including upgrades to wireless access in schools.

“If you can go into Panera and have wireless, why can’t you go into our public schools and have wireless?” she asked.

Safety and security are also a point of emphasis in the budget.

The commissioners have proposed a $1.6 million one-time payment for technology upgrades, which Alban proposes to use to upgrade school bus radios from analog to digital.

She’s also seeking to increase a security director’s position from part time to full time.

The school board will hold a public hearing on the budget on Feb. 6, discuss it further at its Feb. 13 meeting and adopt a spending plan on Feb. 27.

The board will then submit its budget request to the commissioners, which will hold public hearings in May.

The school board will adopt a final budget June 12 and forward it to the commissioners on June 14.

Alban said the spending is as an investment in a school system that has made the best of things through lean times.

“We squeeze the maximum value out of every dollar that’s invested in us,” she said.

rmarshall@gazette.net

ecunningham@gazette.net