Greg Bassett: ‘Heavy lift’ executed for schools

Feedback is still pouring in about the education funding story that we printed in the May 31 Salisbury Independent.

I’ll forgo the temptation to write a new story and offer this column to address some of the feedback. Those who made various points – and those concerned that I left information out – will see their concerns addressed, hopefully.

Elected school board

Yes, after many years of trying, Wicomico Republicans were able to get an elected school board up for consideration, and the voters approved it in a referendum.

This month, voters will select school board members in a candidate-narrowing primary exercise in two districts. For the first time, all seven districts will be on the November ballot.

Based on feedback from my story, it seems some feel the sole reason voters opted for an elected school board is that they believe Board of Education spending is excessive and having an elected board will bring it under control.

While that indeed be the case, such a generalization doesn’t match my reporting which encompasses lots of sources on all sides of the elected school board issue.

I’m not ready to report that the move to an elected school board is a definitive sign that people are opposed to increasing school spending.

I would benefit from more feedback, though.

Rainy Day Fund

There was a lot of feedback about the county’s reserve funding and so-called rainy day accounting. The consensus: Wicomico is sitting on a ton of cash — why not spend it?

At the risk of sounding like a county spokesman or defender, I have asked about this and county officials are in lockstep.

The Great Recession of the mid-2000s is still fresh on everyone’s minds, and the rainy day fund was a tremendous asset when the county began to have trouble paying its bills, even after implementing some pretty drastic cuts.

Also, the amount the county holds in contingency is a key factor – perhaps the key factor – in how the Wall Street bond house grades the county’s stability. That grade is essential to the terms under which the county receives loans on capital bond projects. Most of those loans are for school buildings needed by the Board of Education.

Over the past eight years, the county has added well over $5 million to its contingency fund, and that’s a lot of money. But the united sentiment is that cash is needed in a safe place to both allow reasonable borrowing and offer protection should another economic storm arise.

State measurements

A legitimate observation was that the May 31 story zeroed in on the local contribution to schools, which ranks Wicomico second-to-last in the state.

When one looks at total funding for the system – the combination of state and federal contributions, plus various grants and the local contribution, Wicomico is ranked about middle in the state.

County students might be receiving less than usual statewide in local funds, but the overall funding per student has the county solidly in the middle of the pack.

10-year track, capital

In the “People Really Need to Know This Number” category (as based on feedback) the county’s local contribution to education has little changed since fiscal 2010, nine long years ago budget-wise.

In the 2010, the county contribution to education was $43,196,892. The proposed number for this fiscal year is $44,664,012.

Adjusted for inflation, the $43.197 million would be more than $50 million today.

Another point is that while Wicomico might be criticized in its annual contribution to operating funds, the county does have an aggressive school construction program, financed through county borrowing.

In the last decade, the county has enlarged its Career & Technology Education Center at Parkside, build a new James M. Bennett middle and high schools, built a new West Salisbury school and made major improvements in other school facilities.

There’s a sense that even though the county hasn’t flooded the school board’s operating fund coffers, it has made up for that through needed and envy-inducing capital spending.

Next-year increases

The County Council on June 14 appropriated $500,000 of a $750,000 capital number County Executive Bob Culver wanted to give the schools for security improvements. Because of a state technicality, the money couldn’t be distributed as the executive desired.

The council, perhaps feeding off a frenzy generated by the business community, which advocated additional funding for education, placed that half-million dollars into the school board’s coffers as part of their Maintenance of Effort spending.

In a $45 million total county contribution, $500,000 probably doesn’t sound like a lot of money. It’s been at least 12 years, however, since the council made such a gesture — back before the County Executive form of government was even implemented.

With the council coming through with those dollars, make no mistake about the significance.

The council has engaged in what is popularly called “a heavy lift.”

Greg Bassett is editor and general manager of Salisbury Independent. Reach him at gbassett@newszap.com

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