Culver to fully fund Superintendent’s initiatives

County Executive Bob Culver announced Wednesday night that he will include the school board’s full $46.15 million funding request in the fiscal 2020 budget plan he will forward to the County Council.

The announcement came at the County Executive’s annual public input session, held at the Wicomico Youth & Civic Center. Historically, the sessions are rather tense affairs, where teachers and school officials plead for funding while the county’s Executive Team sits stone-faced.

Wednesday’s forum was an applause fest, however, as those rising to speak were forced to rewrite their remarks on the fly, based on the surprise budget announcement.

Compared to their current year county funding, school officials are asking for an additional $1.99 million from Wicomico taxpayers

Of that nearly $2 million, $1.19 million is needed to satisfy state Maintenance of Effort funding formulas. The remaining $800,000 would be used to pay for initiatives outlined in Superintendent Dr. Donna Hanlin’s “Achieve! 3.0 2022” strategic plan.

Hanlin’s blueprint has been a critical component to politically selling the schools’ additional financial demands — her strategic plan sets specific goals outlining early education needs, graduation success rates, and teacher retention and compensation goals.

Under the school board’s $220.82 million total budget, spending would rise by $8.26 million, or 3.86 percent.

The state will increase its education contribution to the county by $6 million, to a $154.24 million total. The federal contribution to local education will be $15.56 million, which is essentially flat to the current year.

Hanlin’s plan, in total, would cost $7.99 million to implement. The Superintendent and her budget staff have, however, identified grants and spending cuts to meet all but the $800,000, which Culver said he will  “find the money to address.”

Culver spoke sparingly at the hearing, and actually left it to his deputy, Director of Administration Wayne Strausburg, to officially announce the news.

The 200 or so people in attendance were clearly caught off guard; Stausburg’s announcement prompted the room to erupt in applause.

While several community members rose to praise the funding decision, no one approached the microphone to challenge it.

“I want to applaud your decision and I want to tell you I have an appreciation for the challenges you face as an organization,” said Randy Day, President of the region’s biggest company, poultry integrator Perdue Farms Inc.

“You had tough choices to make and I think you made a good one. I have a particular issue in my business, and that is recruiting people to this area. I’m trying to bring executives to this area. I can get them to take the job, but all too often they’ll choose to live in Talbot County or Worcester County. Some of that is they just want to live at the beach.

“But education is a big issue — and this will help,” Day said. “It’s up to Dr. Hanlin and her staff to use those funds correctly, and I have confidence in Dr. Hanlin that will happen.”

County Councilman Bill McCain, whose recent county at-large election campaign included a promise to push for increased education funding, heralded the news.

“I feel you’ve moved the needle in the right direction by fully funding this request,” McCain said. “You’re making a statement that education is our No. 1 priority and the only way we have to demonstrate that is through the funding mechanism.

“(Based on demographics) we’re a poor county, but tonight we’re acting like a rich county — and I say that because we’re rich in spirit.”

Among those making major speech revisions was Eileen Johnson of the Wicomico PUSH4Education. Holding a suddenly unneeded “protest sign” her son — a Pinehurst Elementary student — had crafted, Johnson outlined the parental group’s agenda and commitment.

“We are so incredibly grateful to you for doing this,” she said, adding that group members were able to meet with Culver previously and express their concerns.

“We are so grateful that we were given an equal seat at the table and treated as if our voice matters as much as the business people’s. Now we will focus our message to the County Council to please keep this in the budget.”

Greater Salisbury Committee CEO Mike Dunn offered equal praise.

“This is significant,” he said. “Specifically, putting in full funding for Imagine 2022 is unimaginable.

“This is saying to the community that investing in education matters,” Dunn said. “We are in full support of this and we will be encouraging the County Council to be in full support of this.”

Salisbury businesswoman Susan Purnell of the newly formed Wicomico Education Foundation said her group will also be lobbything County Council members.

“As WCEF chairman, it’s for the first time — tonight — that I feel Imagine 2022 could become ‘Reality 2022.’”

Later, a clearly elated Hanlin — who remarked “I had two different sets of comments prepared” — heaped appreciation on Culver.

“I simply want to applaud you for listening,” she said. “You have heard our community and you’ve listened to them — you’ve listened to the parents, you’ve listened to business leaders, to our board and our staff, who have been speaking to you not just tonight but over the course of almost three years about the importance and recognizing the funding of public education as an investment in this community’s future.”

Sometime next month, Culver will present to the council his total spending plan for the year that begins July 1. Under the County Charter, the legislative branch can cut the budget, but can’t add to its spending total.

School officials are projecting a student population of 14,891 for the coming school year. If the County Council ultimately funds the full $46.15 million request, the loose math would put the county’s contribution at $3,099 per student.

That number doesn’t include the county’s approximately $10 million in expected capital spending for building construction and major equipment, which is typically financed through bonds and borrowing.

The current budget is about $150 million for this year. County officials often state that half of their budget goes to education, but to approach that percentage one must include schools capital spending and contributions to Wor-Wic Community and the county library system.

Strausburg, in his presentation, stressed that the overall county budget is facing an array of potential challenges. To avoid wage compaction, the state’s proposed minimum wage hike would likely force an across-the-board salary increase for county employees.

The minimum wage hike could cost the county $7 million alone.

The state Commission on Innovation and Excellence in Education – popularly known as the Kirwan Commission – is expected to introduce some spending initiatives that will affect school financing.

He also said an array of economic experts are forecasting a recession that could hit in summer 2020.

“The prospect of a slowing economy coupled with pricey state mandates has made (budget) forecasting much more difficult this year,” said Strausburg. “Our consensus has been to be very cautious until the picture clears.”

Culver and Stausburg are anticipating additional revenues from county property taxes, but lower revenue from income taxes. The final estimates are still being determined.

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

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