Cumberland Times-News

January 15, 2014

Garrett commissioners can’t dictate school board policy

County allocated $2.2M to avoid facility closures

From Staff Reports
Cumberland Times-News

— OAKLAND — The Garrett County commissioners’ decision to conditionally give the board of education $2.2 million for fiscal 2015 wasn’t legally permissable, according to a letter from the school board to the commissioners.

The commissioners’ conditions required that the school board discontinue all plans to close schools in fiscal 2015 and that the Garrett County Public School System remain an entity participant in the Garrett County Employee Health Care Coalition.

The board of education is not bound by the commissioner conditions, according to Miriam Sincell, an Oakland attorney who advised the board on the issue.

“It is true that a county may condition funding to a local board of education; indeed, a county has the last word on the allocation of funds by budget category and the transfer of funds across categories,” writes Sincell in a letter to the board. “However, those conditions must satisfy certain standards.”

The conditions can’t regulate education or intrude on the board’s responsibility to set education policy in the county, according to Sincell. “The county’s ability to condition appropriations is limited in the context of education,” writes Sincell.

Even though the county cannot place conditions on the school board, the two conditions it listed are nonetheless going to be followed by the school board. “We look forward to working with the county to insure health care and to keep our schools viable,” writes the board in the letter.

The commissioners’ condition on school closures goes against the position of the Attorney General’s Office and is at odds with the state’s preemption of the field of education, according to Sincell. Additionally, the commissioners can’t allocate funding for fiscal 2015 and condition it on the board’s approval of an official position regarding any school closures for future years; any condition can only be for the particular fiscal year.  

The status quo funding for fiscal 2015 saved from 50 to 60 full-time positions, according to the board.

When a board is required to purchase employee benefits through the county, it is seen as coercive and inconsistent with the discretion granted by the state law, according to Sincell.  “The condition must not conflict with the law, and it must not be coercive,” writes Sincell.

To balance the $2.2 million funding gap, $500,000 will be appropriated from reductions in county government expenses and the school system will be required to reduce operating expenses by $200,000, County Administrator Monty Pagenhardt has indicated previously.

Despite the funding, the board still faces the challenges of balancing class sizes, implementing newly mandated curriculum and addressing the increased need for technology.