By Jack Chavez, Staff Writer
(Feb. 17, 2023) If there’s one thing the leadership of Worcester County Public Schools knows for certain about the Blueprint for Maryland’s Future, the massive overhaul of the state’s education funding practices, it is that nothing is known for certain.
There are strong indicators of what Worcester County and the state’s 23 other school districts can expect — this will cost county governments (and taxpayers) more money — but in a meeting with the County Commissioners, Board of Education and the public last week, school Superintendent Lou Taylor likened the blueprint’s construction to building an airplane “as it’s going down the runway.”
“In some cases, they’re building the airplane as it’s taking off,” Taylor said. “So that worries me … (as to) where we will land.”
One of the bigger financial sticking points is the implementation of a $60,000 base salary for teachers starting by July 2026, the last point of a nearly four-year timeline that began this past December with the state Accountability and Implementation Board adopting the blueprint officially.
The next major milestone in the timeline is March 15 when public school systems must submit implementation plans.
“To be quite frank, I do not know,” Taylor said regarding what the finished product will look like. “I don’t even know if the plan is going to change tomorrow or a month from now.”
Nevertheless, Taylor and other school officials broke down the blueprint, which is composed of five “pillars” — early childhood education, high-quality and diverse teachers and leaders, college and career readiness pathways, resources to ensure student success and governance and accountability.
Dee Shorts, the local system’s chief academic officer for Pre-K through eighth grade, is responsible for developing the early childhood education pillar. She told the commissioners the blueprint significantly expands full-day pre-K for all the county’s 4-year-olds.
“It’s new and very exciting,” Shorts said. “Now according to the blueprint we really have to be tracking and following what kids are doing, whether they’re in Worcester County Public Schools … or whether they’re at (other schools and daycare centers).”
The county will need to assist childcare providers that want to be part of the blueprint. Should one apply, it will be up to the local system to reach out to it and ensure that it has the same resources and support as any other county school.
“In the big picture, when they become 5 years old (they will transition seamlessly to public school),” Shorts said. “That’s what we’re doing through the blueprint. They’re all our kids by the time they reach kindergarten.”
Chief Operations and Human Relations Officer Dwayne Abt, who is overseeing the high-quality and diverse teachers and leaders pillar, said the blueprint will make the process of teacher licensing more rigorous.
One incentive for meeting the standard is that teachers who receive National Board Certification will receive a $10,000 salary bump. Abt said that the county’s schools currently employ six such teachers and 20 more are working toward certification.
Principals are now recommended to teach for 10 percent, or 90 minutes, of their workday now while vice principals must teach for 20 percent of their workday.
To meet July 2026 teacher salary mandate, a five percent cost-of-living adjustment (COLA) will be required for the next four years, Abt said.
“We have a workgroup now with our teacher’s union and with management to … look at that requirement and how we’re going to get there,” he said. One possibility, he said, would be to remove some of the current pay schedule’s steps to allow teachers to get $60,000 more quickly.
Annette Wallace, the schools’ chief safety and academic officer who is spearheading the college and career readiness pathways pillar, said that these pillars are all connected.
Her pillar, for instance, ties into the first pillar by synchronizing students’ paths through the public school system back to kindergarten.
“The goal of this pillar is for us to never have a student leave third grade who can’t read, to never have a sixth grader who is not on grade level, to never have a ninth grader who hasn’t earned the number of credits in their ninth-grade year that they’ll graduate by the time they’re a senior, to be college and career-ready by 10th grade,” Wallace said.
She stressed how important it is to have students reading by third grade, saying that many correctional institutions are built based on the number of local students who can’t read in the third grade.
“If you can’t read in third grade, you are more likely to be incarcerated,” Wallace said. “That’s a formula that’s used in this country. We want our kids to be educated and we know it starts there.”
School health services coordinator Lauren Williams, who is responsible for the human success pillar, said the blueprint will ensure that resources are spent where they are most needed, highlighting additional support for English learners, low-income students and special education students.
“(The goal is) that it’s not serving the population of the school but really the dollars are being used to make an impact with that population,” she said.
For instance, a school is eligible for “Concentration of Poverty” grants if more than 70 percent of the student body lives in poverty. Pocomoke Elementary, Pocomoke Middle and Cedar Chapel Special School all qualify for this grant.
The school system’s Chief Financial Officer Vince Tolbert rounds out the leadership team with his work on the fifth and final pillar — governance and accountability.
“(This pillar is) basically making sure we’re doing what we’re supposed to be doing with the blueprint. doing the reporting, getting stakeholder feedback, those types of things,” Tolbert said.
He said one concern for the school system is the requirement for school systems to demonstrate that at least 75 percent of per-student formula funding follows students to their schools.
“We’re going to have to work over the next year or two to really fine-tune how we allocate those resources to each individual student,” Tolbert said.
“I think this is a little flawed from the state because for special (education), not all special ed kids require the same level of services.”
Despite all the information presented, Tolbert reminded his audience that none of it is certain yet.
“The costs we provided today are the best estimates based on available information,” he said. “We don’t know what future enrollment in the programs is going to be, student needs, collective bargaining has to happen and additional clarification in the blueprint. All these things that we shared today could change and probably will change.”
Commissioner Chip Bertino said one of his main takeaways was that the blueprint will cost the taxpayer more — but how much is not yet certain.
While thankful that county and school officials appear to be on the same page and working together, Bertino criticized what he said was a loss of local control being mandated from the other side of the Chesapeake Bay bridge.
“We are taking what I believe should be handled by us and the special relationships we have and we are losing that local control,” he said. “It’s costing us more. We’re losing local control and I think that is something we need to deal with in some form or fashion.
“We will get through this together but at some point, I very much believe that the taxpayers of this county are going to look at this and say, ‘We’re already spending more per pupil. What are we getting for our money, especially when the state is telling us that we need to spend more?’
“That is something that’s on our radar … But at some point, the state has to recognize it can only do so much.”