Culver vents school board frustrations to legislators

Concerns about the Board of Education’s fiscal accountability were discussed when county and state officials met for breakfast Saturday, in anticipation of the 2016 legislative session.

County Executive Bob Culver, during a discussion about state-required Maintenance of Effort for the county education system, said there is “no accountability” and “poor management.”

He said county officials asked school board members how much bond money from the county remains and were told it had all been spent.

“They want to build ball fields, then lease them back to us. … Are they in business to teach our kids or are they in business to make money?   I’m surprised they aren’t having yard sales every week,” he said.

Eighteen school buses are running, even though the county was never asked for funding for that many. “We can’t justify it to the public, how they came up with that money for so many buses,” Culver said.

State Sen. Jim Mathias suggested Culver forward concerns to legislators. “We can look at that and move forward from there,” Mathias said.

Delegate Sheree Sample-Hughes said Board of Education officials aren’t required to tell county leaders exactly how much they spend on a certain number of buses, just as county leaders don’t have to list uses for every dollar in funding from the state.

Culver said he understood, but if a certain expense comes in under budget, school board officials take the additional money and “use it for something else.”

Culver said there is “never any money left over.”

“You try to be good stewards of the money and they have not proven to be good proven stewards of the money,” he said.

About 25 people attended  the meeting at the Wicomico Youth & Civic Center, including state Sen. Addie Eckardt, Delegates Carl Anderton, Chris Adams and Mary Beth Carozza. Also attending were Wicomico County Council members, and representatives from the school board and Salisbury City Council.

Other agenda items included selection of school board members, the Cade Formula, school construction, fiscal matters, the zero waste mandate, sprinkler mandate and standards for the county’s Board of Elections.

There was conversation about a letter sent to state legislators, asking them to approve a referendum so voters can decide if school board members should continue to be appointed, or if they should be elected or chosen by a hybrid method. The latter would mean five of the seven would be elected and two appointed.

Mathias thanked Culver for scheduling public hearings about the matter, to ensure public input.

Sample-Hughes asked who would choose the student representative on the school board. County Councilman Marc Kilmer said each high school would nominate someone, then the student member would go before the nominating commission and be confirmed by the County Council.

“We’ve come a long way and we’re in the home stretch,” Adams said.

“This isn’t being done in a vacuum. There’s going to be plenty of opportunity for the story to be told,” Mathias said.

The next topic was flooding at the Health Department in the old JC Penney’s building on East Main Street. “They are trying to figure out what to do to stop that flooding. The one Downtown, on Main Street, it keeps flooding,” Culver said, adding the floors are cracking.

Eckardt asked how much repairs will cost and Culver said estimates have been $125,000 to $150,000. A discharge permit from Maryland Department of the Environment is required to pump out the water, he said.

The Cade formula — used for distribution of funds to community colleges in Maryland — was called an important formula that has never been adhered to by County Administrator Wayne Strausburg. Community colleges, he said, are the best schools for job training but they are being shortchanged.

Mathias, who attended a legislative breakfast at Wor-Wic earlier this week, said as the economy moves forward, “it’s up to us to make the argument to restore that funding.”

He said it was proposed at 30 percent and is now 19 percent.

Community colleges train students for “real jobs that are putting money back into the economy immediately,” the senator said.

“It’s up to us to take that to our budget leaders. We see the value of higher education. We see the value of vocational tech,” he said.

Concerning school construction, Culver called for a way to lower the cost.

“We know we need new schools. We need some kind of help,” he told state officials. Three new structures have been built in six years, he said, “and we have to just stop  and take a breath.” Next, there will be a request for a new Beaver Run Elementary, he said.

As the subject turned to the zero-waste mandate, Culver said the county is well ahead of compulsory recycling. Although 20 percent is essential, Wicomico now recycles 35 percent. Wicomico is so successful, he said, that officials will aid Worcester County.

“We are making $150,000 on our recycling now and we will help Worcester.  We’re all becoming, realizing, we are together. We have great communication between Worcester commissioners and the Somerset County commissions. We have a lot of fun at MACo talking to each other, kidding each other, but we really are willing to help each other,” he said. He was referring to the Maryland Association of Counties.

However, he said, reaching zero waste isn’t possible. “There is just no way to do that,” he told state officials.

Regarding a push to have sprinklers required in new homes, Adams, who opposes control at the state level, processed pre-filing legislation to allow each county to decide if sprinklers should be mandatory.

If sprinklers are forced, Culver said new homes will be more expensive – up to $4 more per square foot, Adams said.  Culver asked for state help in getting tax credits for buyers. Mathias said the county has his support.

“We passed this bill in 2012. We had up to 2015 to adopt it. From the very beginning I’ve talked about a tax consideration, a credit, and I’ll be steadfast toward that end. I don’t get up in the morning and think about ways to hurt people. I get up in the morning and say, ‘What can I do to help people?’ I hear you loud and clear,” he said.

Culver said he was told more people died by drowning last year than in fires. But if all swimmers in Ocean City were forbidden to go into the water without life jackets, “What would that do to Ocean City?” he asked.

Cannon suggested fire extinguisher stations in each room of homes instead of built-in sprinklers, but Sample-Hughes said one must be conscious, able to get to an extinguisher and activate it. In a home filled with smoke, “you might not be able to put a fire out,” she said.

“Sprinklers will save not only the property, but lives at the same time,” she said.

Anderton said he admires Adam’s legislation, but finds it difficult to believe it will pass statewide.

Mathias said there were 20 sprinklers in the room where they were meeting. “I do think there’s an argument for them. They save lives. But I’m committed and I’ll do my best” for the county, he said.

The meeting ended with discussion about the Wicomico County Board of Elections, whose officials want “something like 20 conference rooms” for training sessions, Culver said.

“It’s just asinine. We need somebody to look at this,” he said.

“You should see some of the things they are doing and they are telling us we have no choice, we have to pay it — hotels, this kind of stuff. They’ve gone out and hired these people and it’s just too much of a cost for us. Anthony is very good but we just can’t afford $110,000 a year,” Culver said, referring to the director of the Board of Elections, Anthony Gutierrez.

It was suggested the Board of Elections use the library for meetings, “but some people on the election board said the library is too dangerous,” Culver said.

“They said Downtown is unsafe.”

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