Cumberland Times-News

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December 16, 2013

School officials seek relief from budget cuts

Allegany, Garrett boards of education take list of nine priorities to delegation

OAKLAND — Garrett and Allegany county boards of education met with members of the District 1 legislative delegation on Monday, asking the lawmakers to advocate for relief for both counties from the decline in state revenues due to the wealth formula and loss of student enrollment.

In the past three years, the delegation has been able to get some stoppage in the loss of state revenues, according to Sen. George Edwards. “We are trying to protect the coming year,” he said. “We fight to get what we can.”

The state isn’t going to fund the entire loss of revenue and the counties need to help out, Edward said, adding that the total funding number won’t be know until the dotted line is signed.

Allegany County government funds its school system at what is called maintenance of effort level, as required by the state of Maryland. The law requires a county to spend at least the same amount on a per pupil basis as the year before, so counties don’t go backwards in education funding. The state can withhold funding if counties don’t meet the requirement. Garrett County commissioners fund its school system above the maintenance of effort level.

Janet Wilson, superintendent of Garrett County schools, said if the Garrett commissioners had not funded schools above the maintenance of effort level, the school system’s finances would be even more dire than they are this year.

Delegate Wendell Beitzell said that there were difficulties with the state’s hold harmless agreement, which protects another party against any future losses or claims, because some legislators are pushing their counties to raise their income tax rate. If the counties would raise their income taxes it would result in a bigger chunk of disparity hold harmless funds, according to Beitzell.

Garret County has lost about 18.5 percent of its budget in the last four years due in part to a loss of student enrollment, according to Wilson.

“It really has negatively impacted the school system to a huge degree in terms of program losses, staff cuts and school closures,” said Wilson.

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

“This is of grave concern to all of us,” said McKenzie.

Garrett County currently has its smallest kindergarten class since 2000 and the school system is projecting to lose about 50 students next year, according to McKenzie.

The enrollment loss in Allegany County has plateaued, according to David Cox, superintendent of Allegany County Public School System.

The wealth formula doesn’t take into account the transportation costs or the road costs that are higher in this part of the state, according to Thomas Carr, vice president of the Garrett school board.

“We are being disadvantaged by the lake, if you will, but they don’t take into consideration our expenses,” said Carr.

Allegany County has lost almost $12 million in state funding since 2009, which is 15 precent of the board’s budget, according to Cox. The county went from $7.6 million to $3.5 million in four years, according to Randy Bittinger, director of finance for the school system.

“It has been very impactful. While we haven’t yet had to talk about closing schools, we have really had to redo how we deliver instruction everyday,” said Cox.

If the Garrett school board doesn’t receive additional funding, it will have to begin the process of closing Crellin, Friendsville and Route 40 elementary schools. If schools are closed, about 60 staff members will be cut as well, according to Timothy Thornburg, director of human resources for Garrett schools.

“We could be looking at seniority years into the five- to eight-year range. It would be a significant and deep cut,” said Thornburg. “It would be a significant loss in terms of our educational services and educational delivery to our students.”

Both school systems have lost positions, Allegany has lost 140 full-time positions and Garrett has lost 88 positions.

“That (both losses) is a huge impact regionally in terms of employment and generating an improved economy,” said Wilson. “My biggest concern is the start of the wealth study.”

Garrett schools recently hired about six new staff members. Other applicants who did not accept a position stated it was because of the instability of the budget, according to Thornburg. Those people that were hired voiced concerns about losing their position and having to look for other employment.

The study of the wealth formula is going to begin in the fall of 2014 and is slated to be complete in 2016, according to Wilson.

“With what’s on the horizon for Garrett County, it’s way too late,” to wait for a funding remedy, Wilson said.

Edwards stressed that it was important for the wealth formula study to include a broader base and a factor for stabilizing the number of students.

“We have to pump up the local economy,” said Edwards. “I’m confident when this study is done that it will be more beneficial to us to help stem the tide a little bit.”

The respective boards came up with a list of nine legislative priorities, including advocating for relief from the sharp loss of state revenue.

The Maryland General Assembly will hear the legislative priorities when it convenes on Jan. 8.

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

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