Reducing the Frederick County Board of Education’s budget request to the county commissioners would have a “devastating” effect on the school system’s ability to serve its students, according to the school board’s president.
The $15 million difference between the budget requested by Schools Superintendent Theresa Alban and the amount the Frederick County Board of Commissioners has said it is able to provide will mean possibly laying off teachers and a resulting failure to offer some classes, school board President Jean A. Smith said Monday.
“It’s going to be devastating,” she said.
Although the seven-member voted 6-1 on Feb. 27 to send the proposed $548.4 million budget to the five commissioners, the school board is also considering a contingency plan to cut the extra $15 million if necessary that could include increasing class sizes and eliminating of teaching positions.
The board was scheduled to meet in a special session Wednesday morning to discuss its options if forced to utilize a maintenance-of-effort budget, but a snow storm postponed the meeting, which has been rescheduled for March 11 at 9 a.m.
The commissioners have said they will give the school board $244.3 million — the amount required under maintenance of effort, a state law that requires jurisdictions to provide at least the same funding for education as the previous year.
Along with $264.9 million from the state, $17.7 million from the federal government and $5.4 million from tuition, fees and other revenues, that leaves the school board $15.2 million short of the budget requested by Alban.
Board member James Reeder Jr. cast the lone vote last week against sending the proposed budget to the commissioners.
If the commissioners have said repeatedly that the school system will get only maintenance-of-effort funding, why would the board approve something more than that, Reeder asked Monday.
“If they don’t have it, where are they supposed to get it?” he said.
Commissioner Billy Shreve (R), the county’s liaison to the school board, said the school system hasn’t taken enough steps to cut costs and explore other ways to raise revenue — such as leasing out extra space in the administration building in Frederick — to warrant more than maintenance of effort.
For example, Shreve has said the school board could save $500,000 if it contracts with a private company to mow the grass on school property.
The school board needs to structure its budget so it can run the school system with the money it receives, he said.
“I was elected to run the county, and they were elected to run the board of education, and they need to start doing it,” Shreve said.
Alban’s budget represents what the schools need to continue functioning in their present state, Smith said. Reducing the budget will require cuts that will affect students at all levels, she said.
Among the options being discussed is increasing class sizes, a topic that seems to have little support among members of the board.
Increasing the average class size by one student will save about $4 million, Smith said.
But raising class size means eliminating teacher positions because classes are combined or eliminated.
Many people don’t understand that increasing class size doesn’t just mean adding one student per class, board member Brad Young said.
In high schools, some classes could increase by 10 students if one section is eliminated, Young said.
Eliminating staff would mean some schools have to decide between getting an extra English teacher or an art teacher, meaning elective classes for students could be eliminated, Alban said.
Administrators would determine how many positions would be cut, she said.
Increasing the average class size by one student would mean a reduction of 79.9 full-time equivalent positions, school system spokesman Michael Doerrer said Monday.
Increasing class size is not something the teachers’ union wants, but if the commissioners insist on maintenance of effort there are fewer options left to consider, said Gary Brennan, head of the Frederick County Teachers Association.
Brennan said he hopes parents and members of the business community stand up and demand more school funding.
The commissioners need to make an investment in the schools “instead of trying to make political points or further political careers,” Brennan said.
Board member Katie Groth said she doesn’t see the system being able to cut $15 million without hurting everyone in the school district.
She said 87 percent of the school budget is tied to people, through salaries, benefits and other costs.
They likely won’t be able to find enough big-ticket items to get to the $15 million threshold without eliminating positions, Groth said.
Reeder said increasing class size features too much downside and not enough benefit.
If a class is on the border at which a teacher can effectively teach, adding students to that class will hurt the students’ ability to learn, he said.
And if you start moving electives around, the likelihood of having them disappear increases and takes away from the school experience, he said.
The problem is that county taxpayers are getting “slaughtered” by higher prices for gas, food and other essentials, Reeder said.
“They’re tapped out. They don’t have it,” he said.
But Groth said she thinks most voters would be willing to pay a little more to maintain the quality of their schools.
For the county not to at least consider a tax increase would be a mistake, she said.
The county commissioners are scheduled to hold a public hearing on the proposed school budget appropriation on May 7, before the school board adopts the official budget on June 12.
How the situation will play out between now and then is unknown, Smith said.
“So that’s where we are. Between a rock and a hard place,” she said.