Ocean City Today

County could lose $19M in state aid for public schools

Kirwan commission delays report until after General Assembly session in 2018
By Brian Gilliland | Nov 09, 2017

(Nov. 10, 2017) For years, the Worcester County Commissioners and the county Board of Education have laid their claims of inadequate funding squarely on the state’s doorstep, blaming the Thornton formula, which uses a “wealth per pupil” calculation based on property values, for not being representative of Worcester’s situation.

Under the current system, county government devotes about half of its annual budget to funding local schools, under the assumption that the relatively high property values in the north end of Worcester would provide enough wealth to fund county schools, despite such challenges as upwards of 40 percent of students are on the Free and Reduced Meal program — an indicator of economic uncertainty.

In 2016, it seemed like local leaders got their wish — the state government empaneled the Commission on Innovation and Excellence in Education, chaired by William E. “Brit” Kirwan, former chancellor of the University System of Maryland and former president of the University of Maryland, College Park.

The Kirwan Commission, as it became known, was charged with looking at the Thornton formula and determining what, if any, changes would be necessary to that formula to keep the state’s schools on par with the best in the world.

In December 2016, consultants hired by the commission came up with an answer: $2.9 billion. More than that, the Denver, Colorado-based APA consulting firm determined that funding should be set at around $11,000 per student to achieve the best results.

One problem with that: Worcester already spends almost $18,000 per pupil according to the 2017 Overview of Maryland Local Governments: Finance and Demographic Information, which has resulted in a recommendation of spending cuts. Complete spending cuts.

As in, the consultants suggest Worcester schools get no state aid at all.

APA consulting recommends phasing the changes in over six years, and comes with other strings attached, namely countywide Pre-K for four-year-olds.

While the study suggests this amounts to about $15 million in cuts for Worcester, it’s actually much more for two reasons: the study uses 2015 numbers, and leaves out some important figures, like transportation grants. Vince Tolbert, chief financial officer for the schools, said the figure is more like $19 million.

According to Kathy Whited, county budget officer, if county residents were forced to make up the shortfall themselves all at once through property taxes, based on the 2018 tax base, it would lead to a 12-cent property tax hike for every county resident.

In September, the schools sent Tolbert, Dr. John Quinn, chief academic officer, and Coordinators of Instruction Dee Shorts and Kirsten Danisavich to a public comment session in Stevensville, Maryland — the closest of the four scheduled public comment sessions.

Quinn said he didn’t comment himself since his views were represented by a number of other commenters, but said overall, he felt like Worcester was being punished.

“It’s just devastating,” Lou Taylor, superintendent of schools, said. “Hopefully, it’s just a draft. It puts the burden on the county government, and it’s already carrying quite a load. My hope is to get our state legislators working for us.”

Taylor said he and Commissioner President Jim Bunting have already sent a letter in opposition to the changes to the state.

Local governments do have some time, and the consultant’s recommendation is not final. The Kirwan Commission recently announced it would delay its final report until after the 2018 General Session, which will likely make school funding an election issue.

The report was originally expected in December.


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