Cumberland Times-News

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February 9, 2014

Bill would aid school districts with declining student numbers

Legislation requested by Allegany, Garrett boards of education

CUMBERLAND — Bills aimed to help school districts in areas with declining student populations, like Garrett County, are being considered by the General Assembly.

The importance of the bills is that they would automatically provide funding rather than forcing local representatives to fight for special appropriations every year, said Del. Wendell Beitzel. In the past few years, districts with declining populations have been hit hard by the state’s school funding formula, contributing to school closures in Garrett County.

Beitzel has introduced House Bill 814 and Sen. George Edwards has introduced companion Senate Bill 534. A bill to help with the issue was requested by members of the Allegany and Garrett County boards of education at a December meeting with legislators before the General Assembly session began.

“The bill would not help Allegany County at this point, but would help Kent County, among others,” Beitzel said, assessing the statewide nature of the proposed legislation. Garrett County has lost about 18.5 percent of its budget in the last four years due in part to a loss of student enrollment, officials said.

For the last five years Garrett County will have the largest decrease in student enrollment, in terms of a percentage loss, across the state, Larry McKenzie, director of finance for the Garrett school system, said recently. Since 2009, the Garrett board has lost $4.5 million and is anticipating losing $1.5 million this year.

The enrollment loss in Allegany County has plateaued, said David Cox, superintendent of Allegany County Public Schools.

The wealth formula doesn’t take into account transportation or road costs that are higher in this part of the state, school officials have said.

Allegany County has lost almost $12 million in state funding since 2009, which is 15 precent of the board’s budget, county school officials said.

The bills would require the state to make up the difference to a school system if the state funding formula cut funds in a district in declining enrollment. The amount triggering the added funding would vary by year and how much funding was cut by the state.

Beitzel expects that fight would become more difficult each year as the view in Annapolis is that counties, especially rural counties, should foot more of the bills for school and other funding, rather than relying on the same state funding year after year.

“The fight for supplemental funding is getting tougher and tougher. There’s a prevailing feeling that counties are going to have to help themselves,” Beitzel said.

Helping themselves, of course, means raising taxes. Many state legislators said they think county leaders should start taking the heat on local funding issues, Beitzel said, pointing out that in rural jurisdictions, that’s often a difficult proposition. The trouble is, raising taxes hurts the possibility of growing the tax base by bringing in business and new homeowners in rural areas. Larger jurisdictions near Washington can rely on federal spending and businesses doing work for the federal government to provide steady stream of income, Beitzel said.

Matthew Bieniek can be contacted at mbieniek@times-news.com. Staff writer Elaine Blaisdell contributed to this story.

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