School commission’s ideals applauded, costs decried

Wicomico County public schools would have to spend an additional $83.2 million over a 10-year period to meet the goals of a state panel charged with improving education.

The county’s contribution to that effort would be an extra $9.4 million over the decade, beginning in 2020. State coffers would finance the remaining $73.8 million Wicomico would need to implement sweeping improvements.

The spending would be applied to a variety of programs, such as expanding pre-kindergarten, placing more counselors and health professionals in schools, boosting aid to schools with many poor students, improving career preparation programs and giving teachers money for school supplies.

Teacher salaries would also be raised, in hopes of attracting and retaining high-quality teachers.

Five significant policy recommendations have been touted by the state’s Commission on Innovation and Excellence in Education, commonly called the Kirwan Commission for its chairman, Dr. William “Britt” Kirwan.

The former Chancellor of the University System of Maryland and once President of the University of Maryland at College Park was in Salisbury earlier this month to unveil details of the initiatives and seek to build public support.

In an address and forum held Oct. 8 at Wor-Wic Community College, Kirwan said he and his 25 bipartisan commission members worked to fill state leaders’ “audacious request” to craft “policies and practices to make Maryland schools the best in the world – not just the United States.”

“Education is more critical than ever, not for individual advancement but for the economic well-being of our state and nation,” Kirwan said. “It’s time we do something brave and bold for our state and our children and grandchildren.”

Kirwan said his panel was tasked with updating the Thornton Commission funding formulas that date to 1998, which compel the state to better fund poor and rural communities. Statewide, the breakdown between state and localities spending is about 50-50.

In Wicomico, however, the school board’s $221 million annual operating budget is supported by $46 million of direct county dollars, with $154 million coming from the state and $16 million from the federal government.

For this year, Wicomico funded its schools at just over the state’s required minimum, known as the Maintenance of Effort formula.

While there is agreement that improvements are needed, how to pay for it all is generating abundant concern. The Kirwan Commission was asked to determine how to pay for the extra education spending.

There are concerns that the state and counties might have to raise taxes to pay for the higher spending on schools, but no one has officially proposed a tax increase.

Gov. Larry Hogan has referred to the panel as the “Kirwan Tax Hike Commission” for putting forth a proposal that he says is sure to result in a tax increase.

“Even after more than three years of meetings, there is still no clear plan whatsoever for how either the state or the counties will pay this massive price tag,” Hogan said last week in a statement.

Wicomico, with its Revenue Cap, would not be able to easily raise taxes to fund the recommendations.

Kirwan, in his Salisbury appearance, said the improvements would outweigh the costs.

“I’m an incurable optimist,” he said. “(General Assembly) leadership is behind this foursquare. Business groups understand. Nobody wants to have their taxes raised, so it’s not by any means some smooth sailing from here. But I have to believe if people understand what’s at stake, we can build the support to make this happen.”

In Wicomico, Director of Administration Wayne Strausburg expressed concerns about where to obtain the additional dollars.

“The best current estimate of the commission recommendations is that over the 10-year phase-in period, our appropriation to the BOE would grow from $46.2 million to $55.6 million,” Strausburg said.

“During that 10-year phase-in period, property tax revenue would grow by $12 million, assuming we met the 2 percent Revenue Cap limit annually. The projected $9.4 million increase, therefore, represents 78 percent of property tax growth. As a result, the county becomes more reliant on local income tax receipts and more vulnerable to any economic slowdown,” Strausburg said.

At the Wor-Wic forum, Kirwan said his group included all possible idea contributors.

“Every organization that has a vested interest in education was represented on the commission. We needed all of those voices at the table to engender a plan that would be realized,” he said.

“We have some fabulous schools and teachers, just not enough of them.”

Kirwan said the plan is an all-or-nothing effort.

“I hate to over-dramatize, but there’s a lot at stake. If all we do is make incremental changes, all we’ll be is a little less mediocre,” he said.

“The five policy recommendations are mutually dependent, but all need to be implemented for the program to work. It would be very hard to break this apart,” Kirwan said.

The governor was complimentary of the commission but skeptical on the costs.

“I have tremendous respect for Dr. Kirwan and have supported many of his well-meaning recommendations, some of which can be phased in over the next several years. Unfortunately, the Kirwan Tax Hike Commission is hellbent on spending billions more than we can afford, and legislators are refusing to come clean about where the money is going to come from,” Hogan said.

“We cannot recklessly expand the state’s deficit to $18.7 billion, as these proposals require. And we will not impose billions in crippling state and local tax increases on Marylanders.”

State Sen. Mary Beth Carozza, a member of Kirwan’s panel, said she agreed with other panel members who raised objections to the lack of prioritization of funding for programmatic recommendations and to the state and local fiscal impacts.

“I will continue to work with our local school systems and county officials on improving education by factoring in priorities, affordability, impact on our local jurisdictions, and accountability,” said Carozza. “These local cost estimates have only been available within the last few days, which gave no real time for a responsible and thorough review of the true local fiscal impacts. The public deserves to know the impact of these education funding recommendations and expects us to balance and support both education and non-education priorities,” Carozza said.

The District 38 legislator encouraged local officials and constituents to share their views prior to the full Kirwan Commission meeting this Wednesday in Annapolis. The commission will consider this recommendation over the next several weeks. The commission could accept the recommendation or change it.

There will be more meetings and a public hearing in November. A final decision will be made by the end of the year, and it will be incorporated into the commission’s report to the governor and the legislature.

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

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