Marc Kilmer: On Wor-Wic, council is seeking accountability for taxpayers

I’m always amazed when politicians think we should judge government programs on intentions, not on results.

That appears to be the case with the Wor-Wic tuition subsidy program. During its one-year existence, it has shown some deficiencies. The county council is exploring ways to fix these problems so the program better serves students as well protects taxpayer dollars. Unfortunately, demanding accountability from this program is meeting stiff resistance.

I was opposed to this program when it was proposed. However, the council enacted and funded the program. Now that it exists, we need to ensure that the program is focused on achieving its goals at a minimal cost to taxpayers.

One of my objections to this program was that it was not well designed to attract new students to community college and ensure that they graduate. The first year of this program shows that these concerns have materialized. There were 25 students who received county funds. Only 10 of these students persisted through the first year by maintaining a 2.0 GPA and taking 12 credits a semester.

I am a big proponent of education. Higher education or vocational courses are more important than ever. But when 60 percent “free” tuition recipients cannot maintain a full course load or a 2.0 GPA, then it’s clear that tuition is not the main obstacle preventing many students from completing Wor-Wic successfully.

My preference would have been to implement a program that looks at barriers to graduation and tailors help to at-risk students. This was not the course taken by the executive or council, however. The current program sounds nice in the press but has serious flaws in its design. The council is merely seeking to examine these flaws. It doesn’t hurt to explore a GPA requirement for entrance or a higher GPA requirement for continuing in the program. In fact, the Obama Administration, which championed subsidies like the one proposed by the executive, recommended a 2.5 GPA for these programs.

We hear a lot that we should look at Garrett County’s “successful” tuition subsidy. Leaving aside the fact that there is no evidence of that program’s success in boosting the economy, I agree that it is good to learn from other communities. Looking around the nation, numerous programs have 2.5 GPA requirements and even impose minimum high school attendance standards.

In the pages of this newspaper a few weeks ago, the executive said that he did not expect the Republicans on the council to engage in the checks-and-balances that are at the heart of our system of government. However, it is our job as an independent branch of government to monitor county government programs. The Wor-Wic subsidy is not exempt from our oversight.

Take, for instance, the charge that the council tried to get taxpayer money for this program returned from the Community Foundation. We did indeed raise objections when the executive transferred money from contingency to the Community Foundation in direct violation of the county charter. We would not have been doing our jobs if we acquiesced to this charter violation.

No changes will be made to this program without public input or without taking the executive’s views into consideration. While a GPA change was originally scheduled for this week’s meeting, the council president pulled it after consultation with the executive’s office and community members. He has scheduled a work session. The council is committed to working in a collaborative manner on these issues. That collaboration is not helped, however, when we see false and misleading charges made against the council by the executive.

The debate over the Wor-Wic subsidy program has been far too divisive. The contentious nature of this debate is not helped by blasting the council in the press when we already agreed to have a work session with the executive’s office and Wor-Wic personnel. Now we need to put that behind us and work together to deal with any issues in the program.

Some may wish to ignore the problems with this subsidy. They may hope that labeling it “economic development” or saying it’s “for the kids” shields it from scrutiny. The taxpayers of Wicomico County deserve better, however. No government program that hands out taxpayer dollars should be free from accountability.

Marc Kilmer represents District 5 on the Wicomico County Council.

 

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