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County asks for school budget info

Bertino wants transparency, Mitrecic says ‘not our job’

By Jack Chavez, Staff Writer

(April 20, 2023) With another eight-figure difference between income and spending, the Worcester County Commissioners are scrutinizing next fiscal year’s budget seemingly line by line.

Typically, that hasn’t been the case for the Worcester County Public School system and the board of education who, mostly, are left to their own devices in determining what they need and how to spend it.

But this year, some commissioners say they need more transparency from the schools.

School Superintendent Lou Taylor and Chief Financial Officer Vince Tolbert presented the school system budget to the commissioners on Tuesday, asking for an increase of $4.2 million over FY23, or about 4.1 percent more.

In a presentation, Tolbert said that the expected revenue for FY24 is around $131 million, an increase of about 4.78 percent.

Aside from a few questions about particulars in the budget, most of the comments from the commissioners zeroed in on the overall transparency of the school system budget — or as some commissioners put it the lack thereof.

“This is the budget for all county departments that isn’t the Board of Education, roughly $110 million,” Commissioner President Chip Bertino said as he piled three binders about a foot tall.

He then held up and set down a single, thin binder — the education budget request.

“More clarity is what we’re looking for to help us,” Bertino said. “As we’ve talked about, Kirwan (Commission) and the blueprint are coming. We need to see (where we can be more efficient).”

“That is not the role of the county commissioners. It’s the board of education’s role. We’re asking for more help to better understand where the money is going. Mosquito control has a budget of $78,000 and I think a case can be made that there’s a better look at control in that budget than in (that of) the board of education.

“The way information is presented — we’re asking that it’s presented differently. Today, we haven’t seen it. Can we, will we and when?”

Worcester Count government, which does not get nearly as much state funding for its school system as other Eastern Shore districts, funds roughly three-fourths of WCPS’s budget. The investment can be even higher some years.

Taylor said the school system wants to be fully transparent and that nothing is hidden. He pointed out, however, that the board of education is different from any department in that it is an elected body.

“I answer to the board of education,” Taylor said. “That’s who signs, fires me, sends me home, whatever. I will work with them to ask where we want to go with this. My concern is what is their role?”

Bertino said that board members had told him privately that there was some reluctance to delve into further detail because they didn’t know what the commissioners would be looking for.

They didn’t know either, Bertino said, which is why they want to look and “better understand how $104 million of taxpayer money is being used.”

“This is not our purview. I recognize that,” Bertino said. “But we need help. We are facing considerably more state mandates unrelated to the board of education (that affect) law enforcement and the state’s attorney’s office and other areas, and we are faced with challenges with the (education) blueprint … We don’t get as much funding (for education) as our neighbors. We’re spending even more than 82 percent when considering capital expenses. We only have so much money available. “

Taylor replied that he understands where Bertino is coming from and added that this is the budget that was presented to him. The commissioner’s concerns would be addressed at a board meeting later on Tuesday.

Bertino and Taylor both agreed that cooperation has been solid over the years, but this year the commissioners say they need help.

Taylor acknowledged that, but countered that it’s a two-way street,

“Now, I need your help,” he said. “I need your help when I have teachers looking at fund balances, how I can answer them when I say the commissioners don’t have any money?”

That answer will become clear as budget deliberations progress, Bertino replied.

Commissioner Eric Fiori said that historically standards have certainly been met, but this year they’re looking at increases “we have never seen” with materials, salaries and more.

“What’s so unprecedented about this year is the increases in (every facet of life),” he said.

Commissioner Joe Mitrecic, who was president of the board of commissioners for the last four budget negotiations, reminded his colleagues of how the last few years played out.

There was an $11 million shortfall last year, he said. It was even higher the year before.

In fact, in FY22, Mitrecic pointed out, there were told they’d be “$5 (million dollars) in the hole” but ended up with a $12 million surplus.

“I’m not one of the people that want to scrutinize the board of education budget,” Mitrecic said. “They’re elected just like we are. They’re responsible for the school system in Worcester County. Not us. We’re just responsible for funding it.”

“We either choose to fund it at what they ask for, the state requires, or in between.”

If other commissioners want to see what’s inside the school budget, they can probably do so with a Freedom of Information Act request, Mitrecic said.

“There was never a problem with transparency over the last nine budgets we’ve gone through,” Mitrecic said. “(This is) wrong. It’s the wrong steps. If you want a different board of education to run this school system differently, get a different board. Vote in new people. Same thing with us. If you don’t like (how we do the school budget) then vote us out.

“You either support them or you don’t.”