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Worcester Commissioners to hold final vote on school budget next week

A week after voting to provide the school system with $1 million less than requested in the coming year’s budget, county officials on May 21 voted 4-3, with Commissioner Caryn Abbott changing her mind,  to reduce that figure to just under $105 million.

School board supporters

Dozens of supporters of a fully funded Worcester County Public Schools budget came out to a county budget hearing earlier this month to publicize their position.
File photo

Funding projection reduced after Commissioner Abbott flips position

By Charlene Sharpe, Associate Editor

A week after voting to provide the school system with $1 million less than requested in the coming year’s budget, county officials on May 21 voted 4-3 to reduce that figure to just under $105 million. And while the final vote is not until June 4, the change was unexpected.

Commissioner Caryn Abbott told her peers last week that she’d had second thoughts about her vote to support providing the school system with about $106 million. Her motion to reduce the Worcester County Board of Education funding to the level that would provide staff with 4% raises rather than the 6% raises. Those in opposition said the county had the money to fund the school system at a higher level.

“We have the money to fund this,” Commissioner Eric Fiori said. “Expenses have gone up.”

During a budget work session the week prior, the Worcester County Commissioners voted 4-3 to fund the school system at $1 million less than the roughly $107 million requested. While Abbott, Fiori, Commissioner Joe Mitrecic and Commissioner Diana Purnell supported the motion, which was expected to provide the school system with funding to give 6% raises, Commissioner Chip Bertino, Commissioner Jim Bunting and Commissioner Ted Elder advocated for a more modest budge† that would have allowed for 4% raises and a step increase.

At the start of last week’s budget work session Abbott said she’d reconsidered her position. 

“I’ve had a long week since last Tuesday. I felt I did not make the right decision for the county. I want to say that I think we need to stay within our budget and not spend money we don’t have,” she said, making a motion to reduce funding to the 4% level, which would provide the school system with $104,980,244.

Mitrecic objected. He said that providing a 4% cost-of-living adjustment was not enough. He said the county had millions in its budget stabilization fund. According to staff there is $13 million in the fund now and the county expects to end this current fiscal year with an $11 million surplus. 

“We could possibly have $24 million sitting in the budget slush fund,” he said. “It’s a slush fund. It’s taxpayer money we’re holding that you do not spend… You want to do this that’s fine but let’s give the $11 million back to the taxpayers. Let’s drop the tax rate. If we’re worried about the taxpayers lets drop the tax rate. To not give those raises to people who make this county run is wrong.”

Fiori agreed. 

“I was the one who started the argument about these teacher raises,” he said. “I started it and what I found after hundreds and hundreds of hours’ worth of research is yes leadership at the board of education has not followed their financials to a T.”

He said changes needed to be made but that money shouldn’t be pulled away from teachers. He said the commissioners had made their point to the board of education by reducing funding by $1 million. 

“We cannot penalize our teachers,” he said. “I think this is wrong.”

Bertino said that if teachers were getting a 4% raise and a step increase, they were actually getting a 6.5% increase, as a step was about 2.5%. He added that earlier this spring the commissioners also agreed to spend more than $2 million in the coming year to buy down the health insurance increase for employees so they would not bear the brunt of increased costs. 

Bunting said he felt Abbott’s motion was fair. 

“I think it’s the fairest to the employees and the constituents of Worcester County,” he said. He added that a budget stabilization fund was there to help the county in times of need. “We don’t know what’s coming next November. It may go down the drain.”

Elder said the average teacher would get more than $4,500 more a year with the 4% cost-of-living adjustment and step increase. 

“I don’t see anything unreasonable about that,” he said.

Purnell argued that costs for everything—food, insurance, electric—had increased.

“The cost of living has skyrocketed for a lot of people,” she said. “A teacher is not the highest paid person in this county. Our teachers used to be well paid but they’re not anymore…We all struggle. To take away instead of giving, and we’ve been taking away from our county employees for a while, we can’t keep doing this. We cannot keep this attitude up.”

Fiori asked Finance Officer Phil Thompson about revenue projections related to assessments. Thompson said the volume of transactions was down but that prices had not yet faltered.

“We’re still seeing … pretty strong numbers,” Thompson said.
Fiori asked if revenues would continue to increase.

“I think if you look at our trends … you’re going to see a three-year cycle of significant upticks yes,” Thompson said.

Mitrecic said the average family spent $4,780 more this year than last year for the basics.

“Our people are going backwards,” he said, adding that employees were regularly leaving the county because of pay rates.

Elder said the county was under the same economic pressure everyone else was. 

“I can’t see spending tomorrow’s money today,” he said. “I just don’t agree with that.”

Mitrecic said the school system still had to increase the starting teacher salary as required by the Blueprint for Maryland’s Future. 

“We have to reach the $60,000 starting salary by 2027,” he said. “That is mandated by the state. It’s not going away.”

Abbott said the school system set teacher salaries.

“I believe they can do it and they have not …,” she said. “Setting teacher salaries is not our job, that is the board of ed. Given 4%, they can possibly find that other 2% if they want to. That’s up to them.”

The commissioners voted 4-3, with Fiori, Mitrecic and Purnell opposed, to approve an unrestricted budget of $104,980,24 for the school system for FY25. That allocation exceeds FY24funding by $4,973,604 and includes $3,386,552 for salary increases and $1,587,052 to fund the portion of Other Post-employment Benefits (OPEB) not already covered in the school system’s budget. 

In an email to staff Tuesday afternoon, Superintendent Lou Taylor said the change represented a reduction of $2,837,285 from the school system’s budget request. He added that the OPEB change meant that $1,587,052 was restricted and could not be used toward negotiated salary packages. 

“We recognize that today’s actions are disappointing,” Taylor wrote, “but we ask for everyone’s patience as the board of education and school system leadership are committed to advocating for the FY25 budget request through the commissioners’ striking the county’s budget on June 4.”

This story appears in the May 30, 2024, print edition of the Bayside Gazette.