County Executive’s public vent over school board triggers rebuttals

Two days after County Executive Bob Culver questioned fiscal accountability of the Board of Education and Board of Elections, directors of both had rebuttals.

Culver’s comments were shared with state lawmakers at the annual legislative breakfast with the County Council on Saturday.

During a discussion about maintenance of effort for the county education system, Culver said there is “no accountability” and “poor management.” County officials asked board of education members how much bond money from the county remains and were told it had all been spent, he said.

On Tuesday, schools Superintendent Dr. John Fredericksen countered that all fund balances of completed projects have been depleted.

“Any project that is current, such as James M. Bennett High, now in Phase III construction, will still have money in it until it is finalized. County bond money can only be used for the project for which it was issued,” he said.

Culver said school board members “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 on Saturday.

But Fredericksen said board of education members “build fields and facilities for our schools and work collaboratively with the county, usually the department of Recreation and Parks, to allow for public use of gyms, fields, etc.”

Concerning Culver’s statement that 18 school buses are running, even though the county was never asked for funding for that many, Fredericksen explained funding for the vehicles was accrued from “savings obtained by our county-owned buses.”

It costs more for a contractor to run a bus for the school system than for the school system to operate it, he said.

“We have strived to keep private bus contractors in business because we feel they are an asset to our schools and to our community. However, when routes are turned back in to us by a contractor and no other contractor wants to bid on them, we have no choice other than to take over the routes and service them with our own buses,” the superintendent said.

At the legislative breakfast, state Sen. Jim Mathias suggested Culver forward concerns about the board of ed to legislators. “We can look at that and move forward from there,” Mathias said.

Fredericksen said school officials “welcome the opportunity to share any and all information about our school district that our legislators would like to see.”

The school board “has never been more accountable and more transparent than the current time … All financial transactions are online for the public to see.  We meet monthly with the county executive and his staff and quarterly with the County Council to discuss projects and answer any and all questions they have,” Fredericksen said.

At the legislative breakfast, 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. 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.”

Fredericksen said maintaining a balanced budget is “a requirement of our school district.”

“A budget is developed to address the needs of the district to the very best of our ability. WCBOE only has the ability to transfer funds within category; any funds transferred out of category would have to be done with county approval. There are appropriate checks and balances in place to ensure that all monies are spent with integrity and due diligence,” Fredericksen said.

“You try to be good stewards of the money and they have not proven to be good stewards of the money,” Culver told delegates.

But Fredericksen said at each of the monthly collaboration meetings with the county executive and the quarterly meetings with the county council, the board of education “answers any and all questions posed and, in fact, responds to them with data and documents that address and answer their questions.”

“Any remaining, unanswered questions that the county executive or County Council might have, can always be addressed at the next scheduled joint meeting. From a financial perspective, the Board of Education has received many awards for accuracy, transparency, and accountability in reporting of the monies spent,” Fredericksen said.

Culver also called for a way to lower the cost of new school construction.

“We know we need new schools. We need some kind of help,” he told state officials, saying three new structures have been built in six years and next, there will be a request for a new Beaver Run Elementary.

Fredericksen said only two new school buildings have opened since 2009 — James M. Bennett High in 2010 and Bennett Middle School this year. West Salisbury Elementary is slated for 2018.

“With 24 facilities covering 2 million square feet, the renovation-replacement rate for the system is currently 50 to 60 years per school. The current renovation-replacement cycle is extremely reasonable,” he said.

Fredericksen said it’s the policy of the board and school system not to engage in public debates through the news media, “but to have discussions with the county executive and County Council, or whoever else is involved in the conversation, and we will conduct that discussion in a civil manner, through face to face meetings and direct communication.”

Concerning the Board of Elections, Culver said officials want to “more than double the space they currently occupy” for training sessions.

“It’s just asinine. We need somebody to look at this. 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 for rental of office space to meet state requirements and board of elections wishes,” Culver said, referring to Elections Board Director Anthony Gutierrez.

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

“They said downtown is unsafe.”

On Tuesday, Gutierrez told the Salisbury Independent that with support of the county purchasing staff, the board of elections sent a request for proposals for a new Board of Elections office with 10,000 square feet across 20 spaces.

“Some of these spaces are required because of Maryland’s new voting system. Some of these are areas which we do not currently have, but are needed for a more secure and efficient work place. They are also found and have long been used by many other county departments and local boards of election,” he explained.

He listed needs, including a reception area for the safety of voters and staff; small room to give the  in-person absentee voters privacy; medium-sized multi-purpose room for training staff, election judges and voter registration volunteers; humidity-controlled paper-ballot storage area; warehouse with adequate heating, air conditioning and electrical power; ADA-compliant public restrooms; and janitorial closet.

“As state employees providing a county service, it is not always clear to citizens exactly what we do, and how we do it. This includes our budget process. In Wicomico County, we follow a three-step process,” he said.

Those steps are presenting a draft budget for the next fiscal year — including any hotel, travel or cost for hiring personnel — to local board members, who are appointed by the governor.

The second step is having the county administration review and approve the final request. Finally, it goes to the County Council, Gutierrez said.

Other agenda items at the legislative breakfast included selection of school board members, the Cade Formula, fiscal matters, the zero waste mandate and sprinkler mandate.

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.

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 the state, according to 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 last 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.

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.

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.

 

 

Reach Susan Canfora at scanfora@newszap.com.

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