Crowd urges Frederick commissioners to give more money for schools -- Gazette.Net



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Windsor Knolls Middle School teacher Shirley McDonald stood outside the entrance to Urbana High School under a cloudy sky Tuesday evening, engaged in the latest of many budget battles she has seen over the years.

She was one of several dozen people holding signs urging the Frederick County Board of Commissioners to dedicate more money for education and social programs in the county’s fiscal 2014 budget.

The county’s budget process has included a battle between the commissioners and the Frederick County Board of Education over how much the county should contribute to the school board’s budget, an issue that dominated a public hearing on the proposed $516 million budget Tuesday.

Inadequate funding affects every aspect of a teacher’s job, from adequate school supplies to outdated technology to the inability to keep talented teachers from leaving for higher paying jobs somewhere else, McDonald said.

McDonald estimated that in her 20 years as a teacher, she’s seen about 50 colleagues who left Frederick County solely to take jobs offering more money.

The battle between the county and the school system isn’t new; other boards of commissioners have taken a hard line on school funding, McDonald said.

But she said the way this board presents its arguments against increased funding is off-putting to teachers.

“This board has been worse, or at least more negative” about refusing to provide more money, McDonald said.

The commissioners have insisted they only will fund $244.3 million, the amount they’re required to under the state’s maintenance of effort law, which forces counties to provide schools with the same level of funding as the previous year.

The school board voted to have Superintendent Theresa Alban send the county a $548.4 million school system budget, $15 million above the maintenance of effort threshold.

The county funds about half the school district budget, with the remainder coming from the state and federal governments.

Alban and several members of the school board say the budget is necessary to maintain Frederick’s position as one of the top school systems in the state.

Commissioners President Blaine R. Young (R) and other commissioners have said they don’t think the school board has done enough to trim costs in order to justify additional spending.

They’re also leery of setting a new maintenance of effort standard for the future by providing more recurring funding to the school system.

But in April, the commissioners voted to give the county schools $1.5 million in one-time money to be used for upgrades to security, technology and infrastructure.

The proposed $516 million county budget represents a substantial increase from fiscal 2013’s $471.2 million budget, largely due to a decision by the commissioners to move the county’s tax for fire and rescue services into the county’s general fund.

The county’s fiscal year begins July 1. The commissioners are expected to adopt the new operating budget on June 6.

The commissioners continue to plan for the county workforce to shrink to help reduce the county’s $29.2 million structural deficit.

In March, they approved a plan to offer up to 75 retirement-eligible workers a $25,000 incentive to retire beginning in July, which is expected to save the county about $2.4 million a year.

The fiscal 2014 budget contains 2,197 full-time employee positions, but Young has said he’d like to see the county’s workforce fall below 2,000 by the time he leaves office in 2014.

On Tuesday night, most of the focus was on the school budget as teachers and parents urged the commissioners to provide more funding, in a meeting that lasted more than four hours and featured 47 speakers.

If the budget is approved with maintenance of effort funding, it will be the fifth year in a row the county’s schools have gotten minimum funding, Gary Brennan, president of the Frederick County Teachers Association said during the hearing.

Frederick County Public Schools offer a great return on taxpayers’ investment in the quality of education students receive, but that won’t continue if the county continues with maintenance of effort funding, which doesn’t account for inflation, mandates passed down from the state and other factors, he said.

No one is suggesting the county should just throw money at the problem, said Brandon McEndree, a teacher in the county.

It’s an investment, both in students and quality teachers, he said.

Teachers take time to develop, he said.

“It’s as much art as it is science,” he said.

But he warned that Frederick County is becoming an incubator, developing teachers, then watching them leave for other counties.

Kevin Hagan, an accountant and county resident, said he partly agrees with the commissioners’ argument against any funding above maintenance of effort, since it would make the county responsible for more funding in the future.

But there are ways to fund parts of the school budget with one-time costs, and the county should work to find them, he said.

The commissioners should either say education is a priority or say it isn’t, but if it is, they should fund it appropriately, Hagan said.

Adam Umak, a teacher at Thurmont Middle School, said decisive spending will help students get what they need.

Maintenance of effort means funding the absolute minimum amount for education, he said.

“Would you ever tell a student that the bare minimum is acceptable?” he asked, to applause from the audience in the auditorium.

rmarshall@gazette.net