Cumberland Times-News

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November 22, 2013

Garrett County cannot provide funding necessary to prevent school closings

FINZEL — An accountant confirmed that Garrett County doesn’t have $2.2 million to help the school system when County Commissioner Jim Raley met with concerned citizens at the Finzel Fire Hall on Thursday about the proposed closing of Route 40 Elementary and two other schools.

The county doesn’t have $2.2 million this year and won’t have it in the future, according to Jeff Conner of Fike, Conner & Associates CPAs, who looked at the county’s financials.

“We are going to have to dip into our coffers. We do have some rainy day funds but it’s only going to buy us a couple years,” said Conner.

One citizen asked how commission chairman Robert Gatto came up with $2.2 million that he motioned to give to the board of education to close the funding gap during a commission meeting Tuesday and asked if that money was part of the county’s maintenance of effort.

“I don’t know; you need to ask him that question,” said Raley. “I don’t know if his plan was to raise taxes, if his plan was to dip into the rainy day fund. I assure you that he and I had no discussion whatsoever prior to him making that motion.”

The motion died for lack of a second.

Raley noted that he couldn’t second the motion because the board would continue to need $2.2 million every year and because he hasn’t reviewed the county’s budget yet.  

“We have to stop the hammer of closing schools. We can’t come back and talk about it next year,” said Raley.

If the county gave the board $2.2 million, it would become part of the maintenance of effort, according to Raley.

A Friendsville resident asked what Raley’s position would be if the state doesn’t come through with the money. Friendsville and Crellin elementaries are the other schools slated to close.

“I will do everything in my power to honor what I’ve said and that is I don’t want any more school closures. That means I may say I’m willing to raise taxes,” said Raley.

The current property tax rate is 99 cents.

“It’s your money. If the people want to raise taxes and want us to redistribute the money we can do that,” said Raley. “If you want us to cut certain services and redistribute the money we can do that. Some people that don’t have kids in school don’t think schools are important. I hope they are very much in the minority. I believe they are, in Garrett County, because I think they really do care about schools here.”

The governor’s office is working with Sen. George Edwards to provide money to help lessen the funding gap.

“I just don’t know how much they are going to help us,” said Raley. “I know they are not going to give the full $2.2 million. I accept that. I understand that the county has to have skin in the game.”

Conner said the state needs to step in and help.

“The reason why we are here is because we are getting screwed by the state,” said Conner. “We need to be putting pressure on the governor to help get us through this situation.”

The amount of money the state may provide will not be known until Dec. 15.

“I really do believe that within the next few weeks we will have a solution to this. If not, shame on them because they helped to create some of this problem,” said Raley. “Senator Edwards is not working on a one-year solution; he is working on a multiyear solution.”  

Conner encouraged citizens to pen letters to Gov. Martin O’Malley and State Superintendent Lillian Lowery.

“I don’t think Dr. Lowery wants to see the schools close. She doesn’t control the purse strings at the state level but she certainly, as the state superintendent of schools, has a lot of influence with the governor’s office and the governor's staff,” said Raley.

Lowery visited Route 40, Friendsville and Crellin elementary schools Nov. 15. Candy Maust, principal of Route 40, encouraged all government leaders to apply Route 40 elementary students’ motto of working together to make a difference, which was portrayed in their “One Small Voice” video on YouTube.

The county has lost around $5 million in various revenues from the budget, according to Conner. Raley stressed the importance of county government being fiscally responsible.  

“We need to be able to pay our bills. We need to not be indebted to the point where we are indebting future generations,” said Raley.

Raley provided a history of county funding for public education. In the county’s fiscal 2012 budget, the commissioners increased funding by 7.3 percent, which was the highest in the state, according to Raley. For fiscal ’13, funding increased by 2 percent, which amounted to $500,000. For fiscal ’14, the board will operate without an increase. The county’s wealth increased by 4.2 percent on the wealth formula over the last two years because of revenue from its wind projects, according to Raley.

“I will tell you that the two wind turbine projects became all school board money,” said Raley.

The board is facing the funding gap because the wealthier a county is the less funding it receives from the state and because of a decline in student enrollment. The state provides about $5,000 per child and since fiscal 2009, $4 million has been lost because of the wealth formula, according to Conner.

If the school board receives money to keep the schools open, it doesn’t mean that the schools can’t be reconfigured, according to Raley.

“That’s where I think the advisory committees would be helpful,” said Raley.

The elementary school facility needs assessment and master plan study suggests reconfiguration and redistricting.

“I highly recommend you read that report, especially if you want to be on the advisory committee,” said Raley.  

School Advisory Closure Process Committee applications can be found on the Garrett County Public Schools website and must be submitted by the close of business Tuesday.

Contact Elaine Blaisdell at eblaisdell@times-news.com.

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