Public calls for increased schools spending

In a plea to the Wicomico County Council to rise above status quo, schools Superintendent Dr. Donna Hanlin forcefully asked members to surpass the County Executive’s spending proposal and fund schools well above state-mandated Maintenance of Effort numbers.

She said such an effort would be an investment in the future.

“Do the best thing for this county,” she urged the council at the public hearing on the budget Tuesday evening.

Standing with school board President Don Fitzgerald, Hanlin said it’s a well-known that “when you do what you’ve always done, you’re going to get the same thing” in terms of student performance.

“I hope you will recognize Maintenance of Effort will only get us status quo. This year, I am asking you, the community is asking you, to do more by providing funding above Maintenance of Effort. Any funding above Maintenance of Effort will be huge. It will be a message to the community that you truly don’t want to stay at status quo,” Hanlin said.

She was among dozens of county residents who crowded into the council chamber to comment on the FY19 budget.

Two weeks ago, County Executive Bob Culver sent his budget — with no tax increases and a 2-percent salary hike for employees – to the council and included only Maintenance of Effort for local schools, at $43,664,012. Culver did break precedent, however, and provide a one‐time appropriation of $750,000 that he would like to see used for schools security.

Hanlin responded with a public letter calling the move “disappointing.” Her three main priorities for schools are beginning a universal prekindergarten program, providing new pathways to improve the graduation rate and ensuring that a high-performing workforce is hired and retained.

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

At the public hearing, she thanked the crowd for attending.

“I cannot tell you how grateful I am … that you have come out to speak about the importance of education,” Hanlin said.

“I came out of retirement with the very strong desire of leading our public schools. I take that responsibility very seriously. As such, I immediately began … creating a vision. I spent the first year crafting a vision with community input, four vision points that are now prominently displayed in all of our schools.

“That first year, I did not come to you asking for anything but Maintenance of Effort because I knew I was not ready,” told the council.

Now, there is a plan based on decades of experience that led to her vision and that requires adequate funding, she said.

In her letter, she said business leaders “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. We remain optimistic that the council will support the kinds of schools our students and our community deserve,” she wrote.

During the budget process, E. Bruce Ford, Chief Finance and Operations Officer for the board of education, explained the MOE is what is required by law for each county to fund its local school system at the minimal level, as written in the Annotated Code for the State of Maryland.

New money is an additional $646,000, which the county must fulfil to comply with law.

Ford said the Board of Education’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.

There is an additional request for over $700,000 for technology.

But Culver, in the budget he sent to the County Council, said the recurring BOE request of $5,704,383 is over MOE and can only be funded through a property mil rate increase of 8.46 cents, or by cutting core services.

He spoke against funding $3,200,000 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, elevating it to $1.078.

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

It is possible to bond $3.2 million of the approved CIP Pay‐Go and substitute modular buildings in the CIP Pay‐Go funding, he said. That would add $213,000 in annual debt service and result in a bond issue of $13.7 million.

Everyone who spoke at the public hearing this week disagreed with Culver’s assessment, including Salisbury City Council President Jack Heath, who is running for Culver’s County Executive seat.

Culver’s budget, Heath told Council members, “puts you in a very bad position.”

He recalled moving to Salisbury years ago and his wife asking their realtor about the quality of the school system.

“The thing that separates one thing or one agency from another is a plan. We have a plan. Please have the courage to step up. Take the first step on the path to that plan.

“My dad used to say, ‘Pay me now or pay me later.’ I would rather put it into the public education system or have to deal with them when they grow up,” Heath said.

County resident Mat Tilghman said 1 cent on the county tax rate equals $600,000.

“I personally stand ready to increase that to 5 cents,” he said.

Mike Dunn, CEO of the Greater Salisbury Committee, said that 1 cent Tilghman referred to equals about $10 per household.

“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 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.

School board member John Palmer said education receives about $62 million or 42 percent of the county budget. He said he attended a school board construction meeting and learned Delmar Elementary School will be getting a systemic renovation at a cost of $10 million and that 58 of the money spent will come back in the community.

Jim Thomas, chairman of the Community Foundation of the Lower Eastern Shore, said the Foundation 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 funding for education. Members have traveled to Annapolis to testify, if necessary, she said.

“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 got to kindergarten and now they are failing,” she said.

“Without universal pre-k we think a lot of kids will fail. Over the years, we’ve advocated for small classrooms, too,” she said.

Local businessman Chris Eccelston, a county native, said 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 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.

Business owner Chris Hayes, the father of a 4-year-old and 2-year-old, said others are moving to Worcester County “because the schools are better.”

He called for funding for universal pre-K.

Brian Hurst said he and his family chose to move to Wicomico County from New England in 1991. At the time, his oldest child, who was 5, had strong early education benefits.

He and his wife had three sons, who all succeeded because of academic support and dedicated coaches in public schools, he said.

“Our sons are all excelling and all three of them are pursuing advanced degrees. The youngest is in medical school,” he said.

One son, who has children, is considering leaving the county for better schools, he said.

In a letter released to the public, Kathleen Momme, president and CEO of the United Way of the Lower Eastern Shore, called funding for schools, and universal pre-K “of great concern for our United Way” because education one of three focus areas.

During the budget process, Don Fitzgerald, president of the school board, told the Salisbury Independent he and fellow school board members “worked very hard” on the document but still ended up with a gap of some $7 million.

“If the funding were there, if we had more funding, we wouldn’t have this gap. I was with (County Council President) John Cannon one recent morning and touring pre-K. One of the big things is, the Council is pushing for pre-K. The executive and John Cannon realize pre-K is the way to go,” Fitzgerald said.

Later, Culver told the Salisbury Independent while he supports pre-K, it would cost millions to start the program and install portable classrooms.

“I wish I could give everybody everything they want. It would be very nice, but I don’t have that kind of money. We don’t know yet, we have to find out, what the income and real estate tax revenues will be. It looks like income tax is at a plateau. It’s not coming in much stronger. Maintenance of Effort – what is required by the state — is $646,811 more than last year,” Culver said.

Culver said he has “a lot of people asking for things” in the FY19 budget.

“One of the worst things is the 17½ percent increase in health insurance. That is more than $2 million more than what we are paying right now. The other thing is, now that everybody gets sick time, even part-time employees, we have to calculate the number of hours with our part-time employees, like people who work at Parks and Recreation and at the Civic Center.

“We have a lot, over 500, part-time employees. We have hit the top of the edge,” Culver said.

 

Reach Susan Canfora at scanfora@newszap.com.

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