Cumberland Times-News

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October 17, 2013

State to review adequacy of school funding levels

Wealth formula to be re-examined in 2014

OAKLAND — The state will soon begin the process of contacting an outside entity to conduct a comprehensive review of the adequacy of funding levels established through the Bridge to Excellence Act in 2002, according to a letter written by Stephen Brooks, chief operating officer for the Maryland State Department of Education.

Brooks was replying on Gov. Martin O’Malley’s behalf in response to a letter that Sen. George Edwards sent regarding how the state’s wealth formula affects school funding.

“It is crucial that Maryland provide for a strong educational system for all children in this state. To create and save jobs, to expand opportunities and to continue our state’s forward progress, our educational system must be competitive, not just with the other states but with this world,” writes Brooks. “That is why, unlike most states, Maryland has ensured that overall funding for public schools continues to increase, even during the most challenging economy since the Great Depression.”

The act, which was passed by the Maryland General Assembly in 2002, restructures the state’s public school finance system and increased state aid to public schools by $1.3 billion from fiscal 2003 through fiscal 2008, according to the MSDE. It created a new finance structure and funding formula, which links resources to students’ needs and distributes 74 percent of state aid inverse to local wealth, so poorer school systems receive relatively more state aid than wealthier school systems.

Brooks’ letter will be the standardized response that constituents will receive when writing to O’Malley about the school system’s funding issues, according to Garrett County Superintendent of Schools Janet Wilson.

“I believe that his letter is an accurate depiction of what the wealth formula is supposed to do. It’s a wealth equalizer,” said Wilson.

Changes to the wealth formula, which will be looked at in the fall of 2014, won’t be included until 2016.

“I’m glad that they are looking at the adequacy of funding levels ... the difficulty is that it doesn’t start until the fall of 2014 and the school districts have to conform to the means that are given to them,” said Wilson. “Similar to a household budget, changes need to take place. The partial loss of money forces us to look at what we are doing.”

 If the projected decrease in funding holds true, the board is looking at closing four more schools, according to Edwards. The county school system has lost 88 positions already, according to Wilson.

“We are trying to conform to the loss of revenue as best as we can but they are coming at us faster,” said Wilson.

Edwards’ letter requested O’Malley to put in an administration bill, support one that Edwards puts in or request through the budget process to hold counties harmless from losing any money until the wealth formula can be looked at.

The school system estimates losses of $1.5 million for fiscal 2015. The county has lost $4.5 million in state funding since 2009, not including the loss for fiscal 2015, according to Edwards.

 In the past few years, the Maryland General Assembly has authorized grants for schools affected by the significant reductions in state aid, according to Brooks. The state education formulas that drive the grants are wealth equalized; per-pupil state aid is greater in poorer jurisdictions than it is in more wealthy jurisdictions.

“This makes the formulas highly dependent upon changes in enrollment and changes in the counties’ wealth bases as these have the potential to significantly impact the amount of state aid for a given county,” writes Brooks.

The change in state aid for fiscal 2013 and ‘14 is based on the fact that the enrollment in the county decreased by more than half a percent and the county’s wealth base decreased by 1.6 percent, according to Brooks. In contrast, the statewide enrollment increased by over half a percent and the statewide wealth base decreased by 1.9 percent.

“Each of these changes resulted in a decline in state formula aid to the Garrett County school system,” writes Brooks.

The county lost 3.4 percent of student enrollment this year, according to Wilson.

“We believe that, although it has not been verified yet, this represents the largest loss of students on a percentage basis for the last five years,” said Wilson.

The county is viewed wealthier than other areas in the state because the wealth per-pupil basis decreased by 1 percent and statewide it decreased by almost 2.4 percent, according to Brooks. Under the existing wealth formula, the county is ranked as the fifth wealthiest county in the state. In contrast, the county is ranked in the top 10 and, in some cases, the top five in most poverty indicators, according to Edwards. The three main variables that contribute to the wealth formula are real estate taxes (assessment), real property (wind turbines) and personal property, according to Wilson.  

Under the act’s formula, school systems receive a minimum amount of money per student plus additional funds based on the number of students who receive special education services, have limited English proficiency, or qualify for free or reduced price meals.  

The wealth formula expectation is that the higher the ranking a county has in the wealth formula, the more funding from local government is expected to fill the gap, according to Wilson.

“That funding gap hasn’t been made up by local government for whatever reason. I’m sure there are other needs that need to be met locally,” said Wilson.

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

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