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Worcester commissioners, school officials wade through ed budget

Worcester County education officials recently reviewed the school system’s proposed budget with the County Commissioners in a lengthy work session.

Commissioners-ed budget

Worcester County Commissioners listen to school officials present details of the system’s Fiscal Year 2025 budget during a lengthy work session April 9.
Charlene Sharpe / Bayside Gazette

By Charlene Sharpe, Associate Editor

Education officials recently reviewed the school system’s proposed budget with the Worcester County Commissioners in a lengthy work session.

Worcester County Public Schools leadership spent nearly six hours reviewing the school system’s proposed Fiscal Year 2025 spending plan at a work session April 9. Topics ranged from expenses associated with the Blueprint for Maryland’s Future to how individual school spending is handled. 

“I think it’s fair to say today was unprecedented,” Commissioner Chip Bertino said. “This was a conversation that was long and maybe tortuous for some, but I think it was productive and that’s what we were trying to get to.”

At least a dozen school system employees were in attendance Tuesday morning as the commissioners kicked off their annual budget work sessions. Vince Tolbert, the school system’s chief financial officer, provided an overview of the proposed $136 million budget, which includes a proposed $25 million in state aid and $108 million in county appropriations. He stressed that as the commissioners had requested during the past year, his team had worked hard to provide the county with more detail on education spending. He said they’d provided 300 line items of detail as opposed to the roughly 150 line items provided last year. 

Bertino, referencing a February meeting of the state Accountability & Implementation Board (AIB), school board and commissioners, asked how the budget had been reimagined to meet the needs of the Blueprint, Maryland’s comprehensive educational reform plan. 

Superintendent Lou Taylor said the AIB hadn’t offered any detail on how the school system should reimagine its budget. 

“They’re still building this plane as we’re going down the runway,” he said. 

Bertino said the state advised that the county’s local share funding for education was $73 million. He said the county was already funding that share, what is in theory required to implement the Blueprint, as well as an additional $26 million. 

“Was there any imagination, any rethought of the budget?” he said.

Tolbert said the bulk of the school system’s spending related to people. He added that the school system’s budget process had included input from parents and stakeholders, who said they valued things like small class sizes and retaining high quality educators. 

The commissioners and county staff went on to question various aspects of the school system’s budget. They asked for detail about projected revenues, individual school bookkeeping practices and grant spending. They also pointed out inconsistencies within budget documents and asked about hiring practices. According to county staff, the school system added 35 positions in the last six months. Commissioners pointed out the average position between pay and benefits had a roughly $100,000 impact on the budget. School system officials, however, said that was an average and they thought most of the recently added positions were food service or educational assistants but that they could back to the commissioners with specific information. 

Bertino acknowledged that the state’s funding formula left the burden of education costs on Worcester County but stressed that efforts to rein in costs needed to be made. 

“I see your point. I think we’ve got to talk about some of those things moving forward. It is a different mindset or a different direction than we’ve been in the past,” Taylor said.

Taylor, referencing the $3.5 million total held within the 14 schools’ individual accounts, stressed that that money was earmarked, as it had been fundraised by clubs and teams. He said it couldn’t be used to pay teachers. Commissioner Eric Fiori, who shared earlier in the meeting that he’d reviewed some of the schools’ Quickbooks accounts with a retired school bookkeeper, indicated Taylor should take a look at the individual school accounts.

“Maybe things have changed but I can tell you sir what I saw on that expenditure list is not what you’re describing….,” Fiori said.  “Not one time did I tell you to pay teacher raises out of that. What I asked you to do is when our teachers that are struggling to make ends meet are pulling money out of their pocket for what they consider essential education supplies, at least have a channel open to allow them to apply for this money so we can get that money back in the classrooms. I want to sit down, we can go over these accounts. Mr. Taylor I think you’re going to be really shocked when you see some of these expenditures.”
Bertino said the commissioners needed to see results. 

“Yeah, I mean the budget we sent you I don’t think is excessive,” Board of Education President Todd Ferrante said. “Could we cut things in the budget, we probably could but at what expense? What we want to make sure is that we want to meet the needs of our students. When we make budgets up we don’t just throw them over here.  We want to make sure we meet the needs of our students. Those needs need to be met because every student matters. That’s what we look to do. We will continue to work with you and we will continue to have dialogue with you so that we can make it better for everybody.”

This story appears in the April 18, 2024, print edition of the Bayside Gazette.