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Charles County public school officials are crying foul over a fiscal 2015 budget proposed by county budget staff that they believe is inadequate to properly fund the first-year operating costs of the new St. Charles High School in Waldorf.

The county has proposed $162 million as the county’s contribution to the Charles County Board of Education, a 1.8 percent increase over its current $159 million contribution.

Included in the proposed funding is $7.7 million to operate St. Charles during the 2014-15 school year, but during an April 23 public hearing, board Chairwoman Roberta S. Wise called the figure “misleading” and “far less than the $10 million promised.”

School system staff claim that only a small portion of the $7.7 million constitutes new funding from the county, as evidenced by a total proposed $2.9 million budget increase.

During a work session with the county commissioners Tuesday, Dave Eicholtz, director of fiscal and administrative services, said county staff arrived at its education budget proposal by first cutting $2 million in one-time fiscal 2014 costs and reducing maintenance-of-effort funding by $1.1 million, to account for a systemwide enrollment reduction of 193 students.

“Our baseline assumed we weren’t giving them the $2 million for one-time costs back, and it assumed we would meet maintenance of effort, which is in this particular year a reduction in funding,” he said.

After taking the $7.7 million for St. Charles High and nearly $653,000 in added teacher pension costs into account, the schools’ fiscal 2015 baseline budget came in at $164.2 million.

County staff has proposed allowing the school system to use nearly $2.3 million of its own fund balance to make up the difference between the $164.2 million “baseline” budget and $162 million recommended budget.

Due to the combined $3.1 million in cuts and use of $2.3 million in BOE reserves, school officials argue that only the remaining $2.3 million needed to arrive at $7.7 million represents actual new funding from the county.

Were it not for the high school, the school system could have been facing a nearly $2.5 million budget decrease from fiscal 2014, after taking the pension increase into account, Eicholtz said in an interview Thursday.

Superintendent Kimberly A. Hill said the $1.1 million maintenance-of-effort reduction represents a reduction of 20 teachers.

Hill said the system understands that decreased enrollment allows the county to reduce maintenance of effort based on its formula, but according to school the system it would make it more challenging to open St. Charles High. Assistant Superintendent of Finance Paul Balides said it would be “difficult to impose.”

While he said he understood that there were different factors in place in years past, in the years that other schools opened, net increases for the school system were higher.

For example, when Mary B. Neal Elementary School was opening in 2009, county funds increased $9.4 million from the previous year.

School officials have pointed out that the previous board of commissioners promised in September 2009 to provide $10 million in operating funds to open the new high school.

The current commissioners reaffirmed that commitment to the Interagency Committee on school construction in 2011 in order to secure state funding for the school. In a letter to the IAC, the commissioners explained by adopting the constant yield tax rate they would be able to set aside $2.3 million in 2012 and $746,000 in 2013.

“We believe this action reinforces our dedication to providing funding for the new school,” the letter, signed by all five commissioners, states.

Eicholtz said Tuesday that the $10 million figure applies when the school is occupied by four grades of students. The county is proposing to give the school system $7.7 million “as they requested” because in its first year senior students will not attend St. Charles, he said.

“There was a lot of talk [April 23] about a $10 million high school cost, and that’s true. It is a $10 million high school cost; $7.7 million is for three grades,” Eicholtz said. “They’re opening the school with three grades. Next year you’re going to get a fourth grade added to your operating budget, which will bring that up to roughly $10 million.

“I don’t know exactly what they’re going to submit next year, but that was the concept of this high school’s going to cost $10 million to operate. But because there’s only three grades in it this year, they only asked for $7.7 million. We’re proposing to give them $7.7 million,” he said.

Hill said she and staff were able to reduce the cost to open the high school by bringing everything down to “bare bones.” The bottom line cost to open, she said, would be $7.7 million.

On the understanding that two boards of commissioners promised $10 million, staff took the now-reduced figure to the county with an idea for the remaining $2.3 million of the planned funds to potentially go toward teacher salaries, a “win-win” situation, Hill said.

As the proposed county budget stands, the school system would be unable to address teacher compensation concerns.

Hill said the school system has been unable to provide a cost-of-living adjustment for staff since 2009, and teacher salaries are below surrounding counties and ranked 10th in the state.

“We invest a lot in our teachers, and we will lose them if we do not acknowledge their hard work,” she wrote in a letter to the commissioners earlier this week.

Hill said the school system is concerned that if the commissioners do not honor their commitments, it could jeopardize future construction projects.

Education Association for Charles County President Elizabeth Brown said the proposed budget isn’t enough to compensate teachers and questioned if it was even enough to open the new high school.

Brown said she was disappointed that the system will not receive what the commissioners promised.

“It just seems so unfair that every year educators are back trying to fight for what they need to educate children,” she said.

In the same 2009 letter promising $10 million to open St. Charles, the commissioners at the time also wrote that the funding would come “either from Developer Rights and Responsibilities funds or another available funding source.” School officials have questioned why the county is asking them to dip into their own reserves instead of using DRRA funding.

Based on a recent cash flow report on DRRA funds, Balides said it looks as though there would be enough to contribute to the high school, but it is not the school system’s place to determine the source of funding.

County staff resisted using DRRA funds because they are not a reliably recurring source of revenue, and their recommended use is strictly to forward-fund new school construction while the county awaits full reimbursement from the state, Eicholtz said Thursday.

gphillips@somdnews.com