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St. Mary's commissioners approve $3.7 million increase for BOE, only half of request

St. Mary’s commissioners discussed the board of education’s budget for fiscal 2021 at Tuesday’s budget work session, and allocated an additional $3.7 million out of the $7.5 million the board requested above the current year’s funding.

Scott Smith, superintendent of St. Mary’s public schools, was in attendance to participate.

The school board’s proposed budget for next fiscal year totals $232 million, and would include $117 million in county funding and $111 million from the state, with the remainder coming from federal government or other sources.

While the school board was requesting around $7.5 million more from the county than the current year’s budget, commissioners recommended possibly giving $5 million more at previous budget work sessions. That number was further reduced this week.

“We have four ECCs that come before you,” Smith told commissioners, referring to what he calls essential cost changes that go above current funding levels. “The first ECC is for negotiated agreements and incremental costs.” including salary requests overall for school employees based on a newly negotiated agreement.

The new four-year contract, which the school board officially signed off on Wednesday, entitles employees to a “step July 1, which is 2.5% for teachers and 3% for all support staff and a 1% COLA,” Smith said. Those changes only would cost more than $5 million.

The pay raises would require a health insurance increase equaling around $1.2 million, “the step, COLA and negotiations about $5.3 million, the offset for social security and medicare is about $300,000 … I believe we can back out $1.4 million because of people who have retired … the overall cost to honor our negotiated agreement and to cover our health insurance and related incidental costs is $5.4 million,” Smith said.

He explained a second essential cost change is specific to increasing contracted school bus driver pay rates that would cost a little under $1 million, the third is recommended enhancements to St. Mary’s public schools, adding six special education teachers, five paraeducators, a school nurse, seven safety and security assistants and 1½ project technology support positions. The final essential cost change is for $2 million, which would go “directly into our ability to deliver online instruction and wireless infrastructure.”

“So if I look at your negotiated agreement … that gets you a little bit more than 4% annual increase per year over that four-year period,” Commissioner Todd Morgan (R) told Smith.

“That would be very similar to what you did with the corrections officers in one year … or similar to what you’re doing with county employees,” Smith responded. “Just as pay parity you’ve discussed with law enforcement and corrections and your government employees, that’s the exact same thing across the board as us.”

Smith told commissioners St. Mary’s is the “lowest paid school system in the tri-county area,” and the proposed salary increases would still not bring the schools to complete parity with its neighbors.

“The coronavirus has not only taken a toll on the nation but on individuals. I tend to be very cautious about how we allocate dollars now, because we don’t know what’s going to happen in the next couple of months,” Morgan said. “Last year we raised taxes to meet your negotiated agreement; by December we were grinches.”

“I understand there isn’t $7 million … but everyone else went first and we went last so here we are,” Smith said, referring to the order in which county departments presented budget requests to commissioners.

Morgan argued the budget is fluid and the order of presentation doesn’t matter.

Smith said, “You’ve already decided that county merit employees are going to get a 14.4% increase over the next two years, corrections officers are going to get 19.6% and the sheriff’s [deputies] are going to get 26.5%.”

Smith said the only way he’ll be able to honor his negotiated agreement with school employees without the funding he needs is to “go in and start cutting programs,” and added, “This is a time we should be doing more for our kids.”

“We can’t get to the $7 million number … but I think we can get closer to where you need to be … if we were to get to $5 million, we’d be short $573,000 in revenue. That can easily be made up by pulling that $500,000 out of the emergency fund,” Commissioner Eric Colvin (R) suggested.

“I empathize with you,” Morgan told Smith, “but it’s about getting through now and getting through May, and I don’t see us being able to get to that number you want right now.”

“What we have to cut is something that is going to be felt. We have to pay our people … we are not asking for anymore than we deserve,” Smith said.

Morgan suggested giving $3.7 million more now and then coming back to reflect.

The commissioners agreed on $3.7 million in a 3-1 vote, with Colvin voting no and Commissioner John O’Connor not present to vote.

“I’m going to walk away today with the message that there isn’t money to give the education system a step and a 1% COLA,” Smith told commissioners.

After the discussion with Smith, the commissioners approved the recommended budget for fiscal 2021, also in a 3-1 vote with Colvin against.

During a presentation about the school employees’ four-year contracts at a board of education meeting the next day, Wednesday, Smith told school board members, “I went before the county commissioners yesterday. … We are about $1.3 million shy of the money that we would really need to do the full funding of the negotiated agreement and also look at the compensation that we’re considering and putting forward for our bus drivers. But I am confident that we will find a way working with our funding agents to see just how important it is to pay people what they deserve and our people absolutely deserve this.”

The school board approved its four-year contract for school employees that was “overwhelmingly ratified” by members of St. Mary’s education association, according to Jeff Walker, assistant superintendent of supporting services and the school system’s chief negotiator.

The contract comes with improved compensation for extra-pay for extra-duty employees, enhancements to course tuition reimbursements and annual salary increases that would cost more than $18 million total over the next four years.

According to a release, in the interest of public health and safety, the commissioners canceled their March 31 meeting.

Staff writer Kristen Griffith contributed to this report.

Twitter: @MadisonEntNews

Twitter: @MadisonEntNews