Schools budget in Culver’s hands; gap is $7.3 million

The Wicomico County Board of Education’s $194 million budget for fiscal 2019, which passed last week with a $7.3 million gap between requests and funding, is now in the hands of County Executive Bob Culver.

He and his staff will work on it until April, when it will be sent to the Wicomico County Council for further review.

About one month ago, the gap between requests and funding was $9.2 million, but school board President Don Fitzgerald told the Salisbury Independent he and fellow BOE members “worked very hard on it.”

“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 we toured 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.

It’s also one of Superintendent Dr. Donna Hanlin’s initiatives, but Culver told the Salisbury Independent it will 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.

“I don’t know how much we will be able to do for the school board, but one goal I would have is to harden up the perimeter to make it less penetrable, make the schools less penetrable,” Culver said.

Last week, after parents asked for tighter security, following rumor of a threat at a school in Pittsville, he asked the County Council for emergency funding for a police officer there. But this week, Council President Cannon said the request wasn’t necessary because the board of education pays for security at schools.

“Some schools’ wish lists might not get fulfilled,” Fitzgerald said about the budget.

“We’ll be looking at some things we can do. It doesn’t look like we will get a lot more funding from the state this year than we did last year. If we stay where we are, with only Maintenance of Effort, and we don’t get any more, we will get only $4 more per student,” Fitzgerald said.

Bruce Ford, Chief Finance and Operations Officer for the Board of Education, said there will be another public hearing on the budget on May 24. The document has to be approved by June 30, but Ford said it’s slated for a vote on June 12, so, until then, there is still time to get funding from the state.

“Until sine die on April 9 there is hope,” he said, referring to the last day of the Maryland General Assembly.

“We hope beyond hope we will get more state aid. At this moment, of that $7 million, the state has told us the governor has put $2.5 million in his budget,” Ford said.

Ford said Hanlin’s budget priorities are pre-K, increasing the county’s graduation rate and recruiting and maintaining a quality workforce.

Hanlin has proposed implementing pre-K in phases. The budget request for Phase I is $1.4 million.

To increase graduation rates, the Board of Education is requesting $2.3 million.

For the workforce, the request is $3.6 million.

“The sum of those three represents a $7.3 million operating request total. Those requests impact Maintenance of Effort because of ongoing costs,” Ford explained.

There is a one-time request for two 10-classroom modular units for pre-K students at a cost of $3.2 million and another one-time request of $725,000 for technology upgrades in various schools.

At last week’s school board meeting, board member William Turner said he wouldn’t vote for “a massive increase” if there weren’t specific efforts.

“I am very positive about this and I’m looking forward to sharing with anybody who asks me why we are doing this. It’s not throwing money at the problem. It’s very specific and targeted … I think business communities will be very, very supportive of this and I think anything we can do to get them to assist us in getting this budget funded, we should do,” Turner said.

Ford offered an overview of the budget process.

“Every year that the school system puts together it’s budget, there initially is a budget gap between what our schools’, department heads’ and budget managers’ request as articulated need for the operation of the school system for the coming year.

“That includes instructional programs, teacher’s salaries, operation and maintenance of plant, transportation, administration, student health and pupil services, food services, not to mention new initiatives, programs, and requests from department heads for new equipment, materials, training, staff, etc.,” Ford told the Salisbury Independent.

“The amount of new revenues to be received from the county, the state, and other sources are projected and the difference between the two numbers is the budget gap.  Currently that gap is $9.2 million.

“What happens next is Dr. Hanlin and staff meet with the Board of Education in budget work sessions to review all of the articulated needs from the schools, department heads and budget managers and commences to prioritize those needs. Priorities are established by the Board of Ed based upon recommendations from the Superintendent and staff as well input from the Community,” he said.

“We can only hope that through the legislative process in Annapolis, that additional state aid could be forthcoming, such as perhaps a recognition of a need to provide funding for pre-K, a hot-topic in the legislature this year,” Ford said.

The county will have a public hearing about the entire FY19 budget tonight, and residents who attend may comment on school board funding.

Culver said he has “a lot of people asking for things” in the 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. We have met with all the departments and all the people we fund and found out what their requests are. We will now roll it up and estimate what we think. We have to find out how much we have coming in,” Culver said.

Reach Susan Canfora at scanfora@newszap.com.

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