Push on to increase Wicomico schools funding

Dr. Donna C. Hanlin, Superintendent of Wicomico County Schools: “Just imagine what we can do together – imagine the future.”

There’s a push on to increase funding for Wicomico County’s schools and those driving the effort are new to the game.

For well over three decades — with the exception of a few years here and there — decision-making for school spending has followed a script of sorts:

  • Step 1 — The seven members of the Wicomico Board of Education approve an aggressive budget that members feel will best support the system’s needs and requirements. Always a wrenching process, the board has in some years been tardy in getting their budget to county leaders. While their scheduling has been corrected, their spending needs have sometimes been poorly communicated, which causes problems within Step 2.
  • Step 2 — The County Council (in recent years the County Executive has played a part) blanch when they see the budget number. They counter that the funding increase cannot be accommodated. County leadership often seem either caught off guard, not at all on board or merely unconvinced before any discussion even begins.
  • Step 3 — Teachers and parents pack budget hearings to ask for increased spending. Many times the requests have a self-serving tone that the public can’t embrace. Legitimate and important viewpoints tend instead to sound like whining. The increases lose any hope of traction.
  • Step 4 — The deadline to approve the budget nears and the county does little more than approve spending that meets state-mandated Maintenance of Effort thresholds.
  • Step 5 — Some county leaders take an apologetic tone, declaring the money just isn’t available; others point out that thanks to state and federal contributions, the budget is adequate; the school system’s more-aggressive opponents decry budget items such as the pay for system leadership, take-home cars and miscellaneous discretionary spending.

Fiscal 2019

In this year’s budget, the school board has asked to spend $194 million in the fiscal year that begins in July, a figure $7.3 million larger than the what the county administration supports.

In the spending plan County Executive Bob Culver sent the County Council, Wicomico would only fund the state-derived Maintenance of Effort for local schools — $43,664,012.

Culver did, however, slot and extra $750,000 for schools, which he publicly suggested be used for improving school security.

Schools Superintendent Dr. Donna Hanlin, who had maintained a gracious and diplomatic tone during the initial budget talks, responded immediately with a curt letter calling Culver’s decision “disappointing.”

She reminded Culver and others that last year — in her first year as superintendent — she had kept spending requests at basic levels. But now, as she has learned and grown in her role, and has specific programs that require funding beyond Maintenance of Effort, it was time for the county to step up finding-wise.

Hanlin’s clearly stated three priorities for schools — universal Pre-Kindergarten, improving the graduation rate and ensuring a high-performing workforce is hired and retained — are high-profile needs beyond a status quo.

“This cannot be implemented with just MOE funding,” Hanlin wrote in that letter.

Hanlin’s initiatives

Hanlin’s plan is titled “Achieve 2.0” and projects a blueprint for where county education should be within four years, or 2022.

Taking into consideration the facts and figures that distinguish the Eastern Shore’s largest school system from its neighbors, Hanlin is attacking a history of school funding that has historically been set at the minimum required under state budget rules.

Hanlin seeks a system funded beyond the bare minimums.

The superintendent will enter her third year on the job in July. The strategic priorities in her Achieve! 2.0 plan:

  • Increase the percentage of students who enter kindergarten ready to learn from 33 percent to at least 38 percent by 2022 (the state average is 42 percent).

Hanlin reported that last year’s Kindergarten Readiness Assessment found that only one-third of county kindergartners arrived “ready to learn” when beginning their school careers. The assessment is a statewide exam that gauges reading preparedness and literacy potential. While this year’s assessment showed some progress, it’s not clear whether that will be sustained as new classes come online.

At best, according to the testing, a full 53 percent of kindergartners are still not ready. Hanlin, therefore, would implement a universal Pre-K over four years, expanding the limited program now in place. Such a program would require additional funding on the part of the county’s leadership.

The first-year cost to the current budget being considered: Approximately $1.3 million.

  • Increase the percentage of students who enter Grade 9 and graduate four years later from 82 percent to at least 87 percent by 2022.

Wicomico’s graduation rate has long been a problematic number. Under her plan, Hanlin is offering a vision for “classrooms of the future,” where teachers would encourage students to work in teams. These modern classrooms would rely on even more up-to-date technology.

Hanlin would also encourage academic academies or “pathway projects” within schools — especially middle schools — that would encourage students to select career paths that excite and challenge them — and make them more committed to study.

Again, if county officials can agree to fund it, Hanlin said she wants to see pathways created to include accounting and finance, global studies and an international baccalaureate. Online learning, internships, dual enrollment and nighttime programs would also be expanded.

Hanlin also stressed her previously articulated desires to create a high school devoted to the performing arts — a multi-year project that would rely on public/private partnerships to succeed.

The first-year cost to the current budget being considered: Approximately $2.3 million.

  • Decrease the three-year employee turnover rate from 20 percent to 15 percent by 2022.

While school officials have often talked favorably in recent years of their success in recruiting new teachers, retaining those employees has been more of a challenge.

Hanlin wants to invest more in the system’s employees, improve diversity hiring and conduct a salary study with the idea of improving wages and benefits.

The first-year cost to the current budget being considered: Approximately $3.6 million.

The three initiatives, totaled, would cost approximately $7 million in year one. The state, however, will kick in $2 million, leaving Wicomico to fund approximately $5 million in new money.

“Just imagine what we can do together — imagine the future — Imagine 2022,” Hanlin has said many times now. “With an increase in per-pupil funding, just imagine Wicomico County Public Schools in 2022.”

Spending, demographics

In business, politics and certainly in education spending, statistics and dollars can be listed in ways to prove most any point. Comparisons to other neighboring counties are also used to prove a point, which only rarely succeeds because Wicomico is such a unique county and its school system is even more so.

For starters, it is by far the largest in the region, with nearly 15,000 students. A large portion of its students come from impoverished homes.

There is an accelerating number of students for whom English is a second language. The percentage of students regarded as “at risk” for not graduating is among the highest in the state.

Given Wicomico’s role as the largest county on the Eastern Shore — Salisbury stands as the region’s education, medical, transportation and cultural hub — it is expected to offer top-notch educational programs and facilities befitting of one of the state’s most-progressive and potential-rich counties.

Here are numbers to chew on that show the county’s unique position, as well as that of its neighbors, Worcester and Somerset counties.

Wicomico County

  • Population: 103,000 residents.
  • 67.3 percent white; 26.4 percent African American.
  • 27.4 percent of residents have a college degree.
  • 88.6 percent graduated from high school.
  • 18 percent of residents live in poverty.
  • The median household income is $53,508.
  • Enrollment: 14,889 students — now the highest in the county’s history.

Wicomico operates 16 elementary schools, where 65 percent of elementary students are eligible for free and reduced meals under federal regulations.

The beginning teacher pay is $44,202 annually ($46,446 with a Master’s Degree).

Salaries top out at $78,854 for teachers with a Master’s plus 30 years experience.

The average salary is $58,290.

State education officials consider a county’s overall wealth when deciding how many state dollars can be used as aid. A county’s wealth is calculated by adding together its net taxable income and assessable base of property, and then compared to the state average.

In Wicomico, the wealth per pupil is about $271,758.

  • Total Per Pupil Expenditures: $13,321.
  • Instructional Staff per 1,000 Pupils: 76.2.
  • Professional Staff per 1,000 Pupils: 11.2.
  • Instructional Assistants per 1,000 Pupils: 25.6.

The average Scholastic Aptitude Test score, which measures graduating seniors for college readiness: 963.

The graduation rate is 84 percent (state’s rate is 88 percent).

Wicomico was a full participant in the state’s new Partnership For Assessment For Readiness For College And Careers testing (PARCC) and performed relatively well. But while its PARCC assessments were respectable, the county slightly trails state averages in all subjects except 7th- and 8th-grade math.

The two primary Internet sites that crunch numbers and use algorithms to rate a county’s performance — School Digger and Niche — show Wicomico to be just below the middle of the pack statewide.

School Digger ranks Wicomico 16th out of 24 jurisdictions; Niche ranks Wicomico 14th out of 24.

Niche uses a report card system, and awards Wicomico a C-plus for academics, but the county receives A’s in Facilities and in Diversity; and B’s in the quality of its teachers, College Prep, and Health and Safety.

Worcester County

  • Population: 51,690 residents.
  • 83 white; 13 percent African Americans.
  • 30 percent of residents have a college degree.
  • Median household income: $57,227.
  • Enrollment: 6,667 students.

Worcester operates just five elementary schools, where 47 percent of the students are receiving free and reduced meals.

  • Average SAT score: 1079.
  • The graduation rate is a most-laudable 92 percent.

Beginning teacher pay is $43,310 annually ($48,993 with a Master’s Degree).

Pay tops out at $80,044 with a Master’s and 30 years experience.

Worcester has the highest Wealth Per Pupil in Maryland: $1,098,970. Because of the abundance of nonresident property owners in Ocean City — people who pay taxes but require few services — Worcester has an inordinate ability to generate revenues.

  • Per Pupil Expenditures: $17,168.
  • Instructional Staff per 1,000 Pupils: 90.1.
  • Professional Staff per 1,000 Pupils: 12.5.
  • Instructional Assistants per 1,000 Pupils: 28.2.

Somerset County

  • Population: 25,928 residents.
  • 54 percent white; 42 African-American.
  • About 14 percent of residents are college graduates.
  • Median family income: $35,886.
  • Enrollment: 2,958 students.
  • The graduation rate is 85 percent.

Beginning teacher pay: $40,500 annually ($46,500 with a Master’s Degree).

Salaries top out at $76,789 with a Master’s and 30 years experience.

Similar to Wicomico, 72 percent of elementary students are receiving free and reduced meals.

Somerset’s Wealth Per Pupil — $284,533 — is actually higher than Wicomico’s.

  • Per Pupil Expenditures: $15,927.
  • Instructional Staff per 1,000 Pupils: 77.5.
  • Professional Staff per 1,000 Pupils: 14.6.
  • Instructional Assistants per 1,000 Pupils: 18.1.

Funding breakdowns

Worcester receives state funding totaling $26.7 million.

Wicomico receives $153.4 million from the state and $13.4 million from the federal government.

Somerset receives $32.4 million from the state.

At $81 million vs. $42 million, Worcester’s elected leaders give almost twice as much to their school board as Wicomico’s leaders.

A long-held perception is that about half of Wicomico County’s expenditures go to public education — that’s only partially true.

About 41 percent of expenditures go to the school system, Wor-Wic Community College and the public library system — combined.

Of that $63 million, the school system receives $42 million or 67 percent.

Decades of disunity

School spending has been a hot-button issue in Wicomico County for at least 60 years.

Letters to the editor appeared by the dozens in the old Salisbury Times when officials proposed spending an unfathomable $1 million on a new Wicomico Senior High School in the mid-1950s. That’s school’s cost was based on his use of new construction techniques and the fact that it was campus style with multiple building — in that extreme Cold War era, the theory was that students in multiple structure might better survive a nuclear blast.

School board Vice President Gene Malone, left, and President Don Fitzgerald.

For 30 years, James Betts and his National Taxpayers Coordinating Commission (though it had a national name, it was a local anti-government-spending group) appeared at every relevant public hearing in Wicomico County to blast Board of Education spending.

When the local editors refused to print his or his group’s fact-stretched letters, Betts took to purchasing full-page ads to have their viewpoints heard.

For many years, in an effort to dispel Betts’ declaration that teachers were vastly overpaid, The Daily Times paid to obtain and print the salary of every county employee so that the public could review school salaries in comparison with other governmental positions.

A large portion of the new money Hanlin wants to spend affects what happens in the classroom, as well as adding a Pre-Kindergarten program so that pupils are ready to be students.

Historically, battlelines have rarely involved curriculum — the state greatly helped finance the launch of the Magnet Program in the late 1980s, helping negate that issue.

It’s teacher salaries and school construction that have spawned most of the hot talk. Construction of the two Bennetts (Junior and Senior) on College Avenue in the late 1960s and early ’70s were fairly well accepted, but the decisions surrounding the construction of Parkside High School were of Donnybrook scale.

Not only did the school board agree to construct a building with no windows, the plan required the closing of venerable Pittsville High School and busing east county high school students all the way to Salisbury.

There are people around today who remain angry.

A new James M. Bennett High School was mostly embraced, but a new Bennett Middle School in Fruitland was not, and embitterment still exists regarding that project.

Because of the community echoes that were still bouncing around from that project, progress on a rebuild of West Salisbury Elementary was nearly stymied, but ultimately proceeded.

New voices on the rise

People moving to the Lower Shore — especially if their work will be based in Salisbury — face a decision: Do I live in Worcester or Wicomico?

By reputation, Worcester is seen as having the better public system, a better housing stock, easy access to the resort beaches. It’s “piggyback” tax on income is also lower.

Wicomico’s school system is acclaimed for its niche programs and facilities. It’s housing prices are far lower, its convenience to top-notch health care is better and it boasts a greater sense of community.

A driver in Worcester’s push to improve education came in the 1970s with formation of Worcester Preparatory School in Berlin, which served as a competitor for the best, the brightest and the most wealthy.

Similarly, Wicomico has developed an array of private school options, including The Salisbury School, Salisbury Christian and dozens of religious affiliated prep schools.

Newly arrived executives and their school-age families immediately grapple with public vs. private and Worcester vs. Wicomico.

Many times the verdict is either Worcester or private, which puts Wicomico at a competitive disadvantage for the best new blood.

Now, for the first time in public memory, the county’s business leaders have banded together to join teachers and concerned parents to push aggressively for public education spending.

Universal Pre-K is in place in other Maryland counties. Unlike the current Pre-K program available in Wicomico, the universal program is open to more than just students considered to be at-risk.

They made their first joint public appearance in the council chambers on May 1, responding to County Executive Culver’s just submitted budget.

Normally, the lineup of commenters would be teachers and random parents. Instead, business community leaders were the ones who got up to talk.

Salisbury Area Chamber of Commerce CEO Bill Chambers, in his first big public policy splash since being named to head the Chamber just over a year ago, made it clear that his business constituency wants education improved through the funding of Hanlin’s initiatives.

“Before moving into a new territory, businesses look hard at the quality of a jurisdiction’s public education system. They make business decisions based on a jurisdiction’s commitment to investing in a high-performing public school system,” Chambers said.

“Public education is the No. 1 driver of the economy in our county, city and state. Wicomico’s business and organizational community will no longer sit idly by and tolerate the continued commitment to obligatory funding,” he said.

“We will demand our elected leadership make budget decisions that result in education investment,” Chambers said. “We owe this to our children, families and our community.”

Revenue Cap an obstacle?

Wicomico officials will sometimes point to the 18-year-old Revenue Cap as a reason they can’t raise taxes for school matters. In his comments to the council,

Greater Salisbury Committee CEO Mike Dunn made clear that’s no excuse.

“If you want to go down the universal Pre-K road, you know you can’t one-time fund universal Pre-K … one-time funding can’t happen,” Dunn said.

“By law, the County Council can go above Maintenance of Effort if it is dedicated toward education. We understand that is a possibility. If that is a possibility, it is something we would like for you to look into,” Dunn told the council.

Earlier, he called for county leaders to change their attitude and perceptions about education.

Wicomico County has a wealth of assets, from Salisbury University to the upcoming National Folk Festival because it has “always been a forward leaning community,” Dunn said. “We’re here to ask you to answer the tough questions,” he said.

During the public hearing, retired insurance business owner Mat Tilghman said he is in favor of increasing taxes to pay for better education. A 1-cent tax increase, he pointed out, raises about $600,000 in revenue, which equals about $10 per year, per household.

Jim Thomas, Chairman of the Community Foundation of the Lower Eastern Shore, said his group has made education a centerpiece and has supported libraries and programs needed to supplement the school curriculum.

Speaking in favor of early learning initiatives, he said business partners are “all stepping up to the plate now” and that teachers are trying to do more with less.

“At the local level we need to invest in our future … we are committed to early childhood education and ask you to start taking the steps up the ladder,” he said.

Mary Ashanti, President of the Wicomico County NAACP, said during the past 20 years, the organization has supported increased funding for education.

“We support the recommendations of Dr. Hanlin and the Board of Education … we support universal Pre-K. It’s very important.

“I have seen kids who did not go to Pre-k, barely get into kindergarten, and now they are failing,” she said. “Without universal Pre-k, we think a lot of kids will fail.

Salisbury native and building contractor Chris Eccelston, who serves as President of the Salisbury Area Chamber of Commerce, told the council he moved back to Salisbury in 2007 because he saw opportunity.

“I see a lot of opportunity here tonight. Opportunity for growth … I’m a person who looks at messages. I talked to one of your councilman earlier and I laid out an analogy: Our (construction) company is a fast-growing company but if I wore shirts with holes in them and I had rusty vans and I showed up befuddled, I probably wouldn’t be getting a lot of business,” he said.

“Everywhere on Delmarva, we can send a message that Wicomico County is ready to start moving the needle in the right direction …  and investing in the future of our children,” he said.

Hanlin had nothing but praise for the business leaders and their interest in education.

Business leaders, she said, “stress the importance of being able to show prospective companies and employees that support for public education is a fiscal priority in Wicomico County” and that local schools are “concerned that the low level of funding … has the opposite effect.”

“We will continue to make our voices heard during the county’s budget development process, and we urge everyone to become informed and involved. Investing in public education matters to our entire community.”

Council work session

On Wednesday, May 16, the County Council and school leaders met to discuss their budget. In a 90-minute session, only about a third of that time was spent discussing Hanlin’s objectives, as council members debated school gift cards, spending on meals and engaged in transparency discussions.

When Hanlin’s initiatives were finally addressed, Council President John Cannon said he wants the county to begin a universal Pre-K program.

“I am an advocate. What we really have to do right now is to figure out how we’re going to pay for it.

“I think I would have liked to have seen some stronger measures taken in the initial budget, some effort to address Pre-K. It’s going to be the council’s responsibility to see if there is any way to fund it and if the council itself has any inclination to do so,” he said.

Council members can’t add to Culver’s budget, but under a complex set of rules they can make cuts that would allow more money for the Board of Education.

Last year they did just that, making cuts in the Parks & Rec and county landfill budgets to fund computer requests made by teachers in a public hearing.

“It’s not just my decision, of course. I haven’t always been an advocate for Pre-K but I think it is something we should do. I very strongly agree.

“But the first thing is, we’re going to have to get a feel from the council about whether they have an appetite for it,” Cannon said.

The Council President said he and school board President Don Fitzgerald had recently visited Pre-K classes together, and he came away impressed.

“Children have been entering kindergarten at 5-years-old probably for the last 60 years. I feel it’s an antiquated philosophy. It’s incumbent upon us to begin thinking about addressing that earlier,” he said.

Council members were by and large sphinx-like in responding to the Hanlin & Co.’s May 16 presentation.

Councilman Marc Kilmer came the closest to signaling an opinion, agreeing that universal Pre-K was a worthy effort but then asking a series of polite questions that suggested the school board should find the resources through other cuts.

Bruce Ford, the school board’s Chief Finance and Operations Officer, said the board’s request represents Hanlin’s priorities at $7.3 million and includes 11 classroom teachers, 11 assistants, supplies and equipment for Phase I of her plan.

Priority No. 2 are requests for alternative pathways for graduation, increased graduation rate and ESOL. The total is $2.3 million.

Priority No. 3, to recruit a highly qualified workforce, is $3.6 million.

Hanlin is asking for $3.9 million for the Pre-K initiative and two, 10-classroom modular buildings to help implement a program beginning in FY20.

In the budget he sent to the County Council, Culver said the school board’s Maintenance Of Effort-plus request can only be funded through a property mil rate increase of 8.46 cents, or by cutting core services instead.

Culver opposes spending money for modular buildings for Pre-Kindergarten because of the likely short-term use of less than 20 years.

He stated funding the entire Board of Education request through property taxes would require a 13.81-cent increase, equaling 14.7 percent hike and elevating the property tax rate to $1.078.

“That would result in the fifth highest mil rate in the state levied on the 18th lowest property base,” Culver said.

A pep rally of sorts was held last week to trumpet the hopes of the Wicomico County Education Foundation. From left, WCEF President Susan Purnell, schools Superintendent Dr. Donna C. Hanlin, Salisbury Area Chamber of Commerce CEO Bill Chambers, Salisbury Mayor Jake Day and Wicomico County Council President John Cannon.

An Education Foundation

A week ago, the Greater Salisbury Committee hosted a fundraising kickoff for the new Wicomico Education Foundation. About 100 of the county’s most prominent residents, business people and decision makers, crowded into a meeting room to hold what became a pep rally for education.

The origin of the Education Foundation was not exactly initiated after a lot of fact-finding and debate. As Dunn recalled, Bradley Gillis of Devreco developers in Salisbury merely pointed out one day: “Worcester County has and Education Foundation. Why don’t we?”

The idea took hold and Salisbury business icon Susan Purnell was drafted to head the group. While no one thinks that even the most well-heeled residents of the county can raise enough personal cash to fund significant programs, the symbolism has an immense value in itself.

Also, the effort raises awareness and triggers ample dialogue. And what the community leaders said that night was pretty compelling:

Salisbury Area Chamber of Commerce CEO Bill Chambers:  

“Business interests have said enough is enough in areas where education is not a priority. To keep a vibrant, highly achievable community you need successful public schools. Maintenance of Effort is a recipe not for success but for mediocrity.

“The Education Foundation is going to be a catalyst to continue the dialogue about priorities when it comes to education investment in Wicomico County. The foundation, in my view, is not tasked to supplant the responsibility that falls on county leaders when it comes to investing in public schools.

“It is going to be a tool that can add to education, at all levels, from Pre-K to grade 12 in a variety of ways but not in ways that are not 100 percent the responsibility of our county leaders.

“If education is not funded because county leaders shy away from a tax increase, it will be another example of kicking the can down the road. If we wait until everything is the way everyone wants it, we will wait until the next recession and then we’ll have another excuse why we can’t do it. Businesses will flock here if there is better education.”

Greater Salisbury Committee CEO Mike Dunn:

“This has been extraordinary. There was as real collaborative effort put forth. We have the Chamber of Commerce, the Greater Salisbury Committee, the United Way, the Community Foundation, the new Education Foundation all participating. We have witnessed the business community, philanthropic, parents, all coming forward.

“We are all of the belief that funding for education is an important development tool. In order for Dr. Hanlin’s plan, Imagine 2022, to be enacted we’re going to have to change the status quo around here. Specifically, Maintenance of Effort. We all want to see Wicomico County move off that as a policy.”

Salisbury Mayor Jake Day:

“The best way for Salisbury to grow and proposer is to have an excellent school system. We can make our system a jewel for others in the state to envy. We can make it so that we are known as a public school system that has rising performance scores.

“Salisbury is on its way to becoming one of America’s Great Small Cities. To reach our potential, we’ll need a great school system.”

Schools Superintendent Donna Hanlin:

“Business leaders are stressing the importance of being able to show prospective companies and employees that support for public education is a fiscal priority in Wicomico County. When local schools only achieve the low level of funding, it has the opposite effect.

“I urge everyone to become informed and involved. Investing in public education matters to our entire community.”

Education Foundation President Susan Purnell:

“As everyone knows, I’m in the jewelry business, and in the jewelry business the first rule is: ‘You get what you pay for.’ It is fairly proven that the same is true in education.

“I know that everyone here, just by your presence tonight, wants the best in education.”

Work session is Friday

The Wicomico County Council will hold a work session on the county budget tomorrow, Friday, June 1, beginning at 9:30 a.m. in Room 301 of the Government Office Building in Downtown Salisbury.

Members of the public will be able to speak as part of that work session.

 

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

Reach Susan Canfora at scanfora@newszap.com.

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