Frederick County public schools facing money crunch -- Gazette.Net



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The Frederick County public school system is bracing for an anticipated decline in state and local funding due to weaker-than-anticipated student enrollment, while at the same time facing millions of dollars in obligations for new spending, according to school officials.

Details of how the school system intends to pay for its needs in fiscal 2014, which begins July 1, will be available Thursday when Schools Superintendent Theresa Alban unveils her proposed operating budget.

The proposal then will be reviewed by the Frederick County Board of Education on Jan. 23.

The Frederick County Board of Commissioners, which is the funding authority for the school system, is set to adopt its budget June 6, and the school board will finalize its budget later that month.

The commissioners already have told the board they will fund the school system at maintenance-of-effort level, the minimum required under state law.

That would give the school system $229.4 million in county funding in fiscal 2014, plus about $11 million in in-kind services.

About 52 percent of the county’s operating budget goes to fund education.

Details of Gov. Martin O’Malley’s (D) budget, which includes operating funds for school districts statewide, was scheduled to be released today.

In fiscal 2013, which ends June 30, Frederick County Public Schools has an operating budget of $523.1 million.

Few details were known today about Alban’s proposed budget, set to be released during a rally at Tuscarora High School.

Commissioners’ President Blaine R. Young (R) said today morning he has been told Alban’s budget will request between $10 million and $15 million from the county above the maintenance-of-effort level.

“The question is, where are you going to find it?” he asked.

The county already is doing more for education due to a state mandate that they pay for teachers’ pensions, Young said. That is expected to cost the county about $7 million this year and $10 million by 2016, he said.

He also cited the commissioners’ support for school construction projects.

However, Gary Brennan, president of the Frederick County Teachers Association, said the school system needs millions of dollars above the state minimum.

“The school system cannot continue to do all of the work that we’re doing without additional funds,” Brennan said.

He called the commissioners’ intentions “short-sighted” merely to provide maintenance-of-effort funding, rather than exceeding the minimum.

“I think it’s political,” Brennan said. “It’s partly a slap at the teachers association and the board of education. I think what’s sad about that is it puts kids in the middle.”

Young said the county already is dealing with a structural deficit of about $30 million, and a projected $20,000 deficit for fiscal 2014 that will make meeting all funding requests difficult.

“They just have to realize they can’t have it all,” Young said of the union. “They don’t want to deal with that reality. They want it all.”

Leslie Pellegrino, executive director of fiscal services for the school system, said there are a few set costs that the school system already knows about.

Those include an additional $4 million more than this year’s budget to pay for the remainder of a salary increase for school staff, including teachers, added health insurance costs and $2.3 million for the new Frederick Classical Charter School opening this year.

The school system also is anticipating increases in instructional and training costs associated with the implementation of the Common Core State Standards, a set of national guidelines for education, and $300,000 in spending to implement a new middle-school schedule approved on Jan. 2.

“We’re not going to get a lot of new revenues,” Pellegrino said.

A lot of the school system’s funding is tied to enrollment, which is below what officials projected this time this past year.

Officials estimated the school system of more than 40,500 students would add another 398 this past year but only got 40 new students.

Brennan said a decline in available funding is a concern.

County teachers this year had one furlough day — a day of unpaid leave — and lost a 1.5-percent, one-time stipend they received this past year.

Teachers did receive a partial step increase in contracts for this year after collective bargaining resulted in a work-to-rule protest, in which teachers worked only the hours for which they were paid.

The school system began contract negotiations with teachers this month concerning salary and benefits for the next fiscal year.

“We’ve had flat funding, or even reduced funding over the past four years, and we’re really at the breaking point,” Brennan said.

That sentiment has been shared at a series of town hall meetings Alban has conducted leading up to the release of her budget.

Common concerns included how to pay for more up-to-date technology in schools as well as maintain arts education programs and serve both special needs and highly gifted students.

Alban’s town hall meetings — two of which were open to the public and the third that included business leaders — sought to gather feedback about the school system’s budget.

The response from those meetings was considered as the spending plan was drafted, said Michael Doerrer, director of communication, community engagement and marketing for the school system.

In the past, superintendents have engaged the public after the budget’s release, Doerrer said.

“She really wanted to make an effort this year and turn things around,” he said of Alban.

Young said in December that Alban’s town hall meetings could further politicize the budget process.

Alban already has received hundreds of comments from the public, including many on Facebook, via email and on Twitter, Doerrer said.

ecunningham@gazette.net