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Some Facts Before the Public Budget Hearing

Tonight the Cecil County Council will host its annual public budget hearing at Elkton High School. We will see many familiar faces as the usual contingents show up in support of their particular causes–Cecil County Public Library, Cecil County Public Schools, Cecil College, various public safety organizations–and many of us will say essentially the same things we’ve said in previous years.

Tales from Last Year’s Budget Hearing

But there’s always a group that speaks against any funding that doesn’t directly benefit them and they will tell some tall tales. Last year they got up one after the other and told the council how people were moving from Cecil County to Delaware because the proposed tax increase was too high.

I don’t follow Delaware taxes closely but I seriously doubted their claims were based on facts. One thing the speakers overlooked was the fact that school districts in Delaware have taxing authority, a funding source Cecil County Public Schools doesn’t have.

Here’s an example from one of the school districts most favored by home buyers:

The Appoquinimink School District Board of Education has approved a 13.8 percent property tax increase and approved a budget which runs a deficit and cuts programs.
At the same meeting on July 11, the board also approved the designs of the new elementary school and another new building containing a middle school and high school.
Effective immediately, the property tax rate will increase by about 25 cents from $1.8473 to $2.1024 per $100 assessed value. District officials have delivered the tax warrant—which lists the new rate–to the New Castle County government. The property tax bills should be mailed out by the end of this month.
Delaware does have some tax benefits but it’s far from a mass exodus and the speakers didn’t present any data to support their assertions.

Facts to Preempt Other Tales

Based on some of the messages I’ve seen repeated online from this same cast of characters, let’s put out a few facts in advance of the hearing.

Not all of Cecil County Public Schools’ fund balance is available for discretionary spending

Yes, Cecil County Public Schools did end FY17 with a fund balance of $16 million, however, it’s not as if the school system is sitting on a pile of cash that it can spend any way it wants. The use of much of that money is restricted either by board policy (the $5.9 million identified below as “Budget Contingency”) or government accounting standards.
The amount identified as “Unassigned” in the above image has been the topic of much discussion in the last few months as the CCPS board of education voted to use some of those funds for projects including secure school entrances at four schools, new security cameras at all high schools, a new phone system, and *gasp* the long-requested field house at Perryville High School–and the county council approved that designation of funds. Read all about that here

The Governor’s Salary isn’t a Yard Stick for Determining the Compensation of School System Leadership

I’ve seen it repeated several times in the last few months: the new superintendent of CCPS will have a salary higher than that of Maryland’s governor. That statement itself is true–According to this database of Maryland salaries, Governor Larry Hogan will make $175,000. In comparison, the minimum salary advertised for the new CCPS superintendent was $190,000. (Dr. Jeffrey Lawson was selected as the incoming superintendent at last week’s board of education meeting, however, I haven’t yet seen any information about the salary agreed upon in his contract.)

The qualifications for the positions are very different.

A candidate for the governor need only be:

  • at least 30 years old
  • a resident and registered voter in Maryland for the five years preceding the election
There are no requirements around higher education or work experience–just age and residency requirements. Heck, most of us in the room for the budget hearing will meet these requirements.
In comparison, a school superintendent in Maryland must meet the following requirements per state law (COMAR13A.12.04.03)
  • Have a master’s degree from an institute of higher education
  • Have 3 years of satisfactory teaching experience and 2 years of satisfactory administrative or supervisory experience in a PreK-12 school setting
  • Submit a minimum of 24 credits of post-master, graduate coursework in educational administration and supervision to include a balance of coursework in specified areas

While most superintendents meet the requirements to run for governor, current and previous governors don’t meet the requirements to run a school system. At the budget hearing, there will be only a few in attendance who meet these requirements.

Learn & Share Facts–not Fiction

I’ll say it again: Not everything you read online (or hear people say) is true. Choose your sources of information wisely and only share the truth.

What Can You Do to Advocate for Education?

  • Call or email our county council members at jbowlsbey@ccgov.org, dschneckenburger@ccgov.org, gpatchell@ccgov.org, bmeffley@ccgov.org, jgregory@ccgov.org
  • Call the council members at +1(410)996-5201
  • Attend and speak at the public budget hearing on May 22rd at Elkton High School at 7 PM
  • Learn more about school budget terminology
PHS field house CCPS fund balance

A Field House, Fund Balance, & School Entrances

Answers to Frequently Asked Questions

FY19 Budget Post Part 2–Decade of Neglect Update

Read Part 2–Positions & Projects on Hold as CCPS Blindsided by County Executive’s Budget

In my last post, I explained some of the terminology associated with school budgets and discussed the sources of funding for public education. If you haven’t read that post, you might want to take a look at that one before reading this new post. Read it here

How did CCPS end up with an extra $6.4 million to spend?

If your only source of information on education in Cecil County is what you read in uninformed rants online and in the letters to the editor you could get the idea that CCPS was up to something shady. But if you read the actual articles in the paper or *gasp* attend a board of education meeting (here’s a link to the meeting schedule), you’d quickly realize those other less-than-reliable “sources” are telling tall tales.

The real answer to the question about fund balance couldn’t be farther from shady. That $6.4 million is the measurable, tangible result of the school system’s efforts to control costs and generally function as trustworthy stewards of the taxpayers’ investment in public education.

CCPS has saved the county literally millions of dollars in the last decade by developing and maintaining a culture of efficiency and frugality. Cost saving Initiatives like installing multiple large solar energy arrays, switching utilities from oil to natural gas when feasible, and adjusting employee health insurance plans, combined with several winters of weather less severe than 2014’s Polar Vortex, all contributed to the favorable unassigned fund balance CCPS reported at the end of the 2017 fiscal year.

What is fund balance?

Fund balance is a term most of us don’t run into in our daily lives but it’s an important concept to understand when talking about school budgets. My admittedly oversimplified definition of fund balance–it’s the money remaining in the operating budget after all other expenses have been met.

CCPS Board of Education policy requires the school system to maintain a fund balance of not less than 5% of its annual operating budget:

POLICY STATEMENT
The fund balance of the Board of Education of Cecil County has been accumulated to meet this purpose, to provide stability and flexibility to respond to unexpected adversity and/or opportunities.

The target is to maintain a total fund balance of not less than 5% of annual operating expenditures for the fiscal year.

The Board’s basic goal is to maintain annual expenditure increases at a growth rate, and to limit expenditures to anticipated revenue in order to maintain a balanced budget. The decision to retain a total fund balance of not less than 5% of operating expenditures stems from the following:

-This amount provides the liquidity necessary to accommodate the Board’s uneven cash flow.

-This amount provides the liquidity to respond to contingent liabilities.

Beginning in Fiscal Year 2011, unassigned fund balance shall be any remaining amounts.”

That $6.4 million is from the unassigned balance that remained at the end of FY2017.

Through solid business practices and careful planning, CCPS replenished the fund balance they were forced to dip into when Cecil County reduced its share of the school system’s funding in 2009. From the CCPS annual report for FY2017:

“The General Fund increased $4,331,152 from the previous year to $16,339,378. Several years of reductions in discretionary spending, and deferred purchases and repairs, rising healthcare costs and increased utility costs had caused a need to utilize a larger portion of the fund balance than originally planned in previous years. Portions of the fund balance were recovered in  Fiscal Years 2015, 2016 and 2017. For the first time since fiscal 2013, the target to maintain a total fund balance of not less than 5% of annual operating expenditures for the fiscal year was achieved in fiscal 2016. “

CCPS Fund Balance CAFR FY17

This screenshot from the CCPS Annual Report for FY17 gives you a better perspective on the county’s funding of the school system vs. the net change in the CCPS fund balance. For good measure, the green line shows CCPS spending.

CCPS funding from Cecil County vs Fund Balance

Why did CCPS decide to use fund balance to pay for the field house at Perryville High School rather than putting it through the county’s capital improvement plan (CIP)?

They tried (and tried…and tried) to get the county to pay for the project. It’s been included in the school system’s capital request for at least the last four years. In fact, when I started advocating for the school system 4 years ago, I was told the school system includes the field house in every year’s budget request because, in the past, some county officials claimed that they didn’t know about the project or forgot about the project from year to year. Even when there has been no chance in hell that the project would be funded, it was listed in the budget request as a sign that CCPS hadn’t “forgotten” about the project and wasn’t letting the county forget it either.

But there’s always someone who seems surprised when the topic comes up.

Anyway, when the new building at Perryville High School opened in 1977 a field house wasn’t included in the project. I’m not sure if that was due to a lack of funding or if field houses just weren’t considered common and necessary at the time. Regardless, in the last 40 years, field houses were built at all the other high schools in the county but Perryville never got one.

So, after 40 years of waiting and with no sign Cecil County would ever pay for the field house, CCPS decided to fund the project itself, using the money it had saved from cost-cutting measures over the last few years.

Maybe the county will fund the field house in future capital budgets?

For more than a decade, Cecil County has had a lousy track record for funding small capital projects for CCPS and, despite the best efforts of the maintenance staff, some of the damage caused by this neglect is visible in our schools.

As I told the council when I spoke in support of the budget amendment that addressed the appropriation of the fund balance, the most the county has funded for the CCPS small capital request in the last four fiscal years is $1.6 million and $800,000 of each year’s funding was the payment of a multi year contract that the county was obligated to pay.

With that kind of history, you can see why I told the council I had little hope of the county ever coming up with $2 million for the field house project.

CCPS small capital funding trend

How is CCPS spending the rest of the fund balance?

Because the accumulation of unassigned fund balance doesn’t represent ongoing sustained funding, it wouldn’t be prudent to spend the money on recurring expenses like salary increases or new positions. If the money was spent on pay raises this year, what would happen in the next fiscal year when that funding wasn’t available? If the county opted not to fund the increased salary expense, employees would then have to take a pay cut and no one wants to do that.

Sound financial management means the fund balance should be spent on projects and one-time expenses. Following those guidelines, most of the projects that will be covered with this money have appeared as part of the CCPS budget requests for one or more recent years–but not funded by the county.

  • Security camera upgrades at all 5 high schools and the School of Technology
  • Upgraded entrances at Kenmore Elementary School, Elkton Middle, Perryville High, and Rising Sun High
  • New phone system (to replace a system that is so antiquated that replacement parts are no longer available on eBay)
  • Upgraded parking loop at North East Elementary

CCPS Fund Balance Appropriation

To put it in simply: CCPS plans to use the savings from its operating budget to cover capital projects that would otherwise have to be funded by the county.

We should be thanking CCPS for taking care of these projects because the county had no plan to fund them in the near (or distant) future.

CCPS FY18 capital budget vs funding

What about the security of school entrances?

When CCPS went to the council in February to support their request to spend the fund balance, they assured the council that all school buildings are secure–every school is locked and visitors must be buzzed into the building.

With that said, as part of the school system’s safe schools initiative that has been in place for several years CCPS identified school buildings that didn’t meet newer recommendations for secure entrances–namely entrances with locked vestibules to funnel visitors into the main office

“Reconfigure main entrance design so that there is a secondary set of secure doors and all traffic is funneled into the main office before they can gain access into the school. To heightened the security further, make the initial exterior door buzzer controlled with a camera and intercom, thereby requiring visitors to be buzzed in the first door, funneled through a second door (which could also be buzzer controlled, if appropriate), and only then provided access into the main building.”

The schools identified are generally older and have not undergone a major renovation nor are they expected to undergo such a renovation in the foreseeable future. The need to fund projects explicitly for entrance upgrades is another symptom of the county’s decade of neglect. In the years before that decade multiple schools were renovated each year and features like upgraded entrances would have been a part of those projects. When the funding for major renovations dried up, so to did the opportunity to upgrade the entrances.

Moral of the Story? Choose your sources of information wisely

Not everything you read online is true.

Education is a large portion of the Cecil County budget so it’s understandable that the department is thoroughly scrutinized by both the county administration and the public. However, the scrutiny from the public often morphs into a handful of vocal yet uninformed residents hurling accusations intent on misinforming anyone who will listen.

Choose your sources of information wisely.

School Budget Terminology

Jargon makes me crazy–mostly because it causes miscommunication if all parties in the conversation don’t understand the terms being used.

Sometimes there’s no way around it so I want to explain some concepts so we’re all on the same page.

In order to understand the Cecil County Public Schools budget or any governmental budget for that matter, it helps to know a few terms (I apologize in advance to anyone with expertise in finance and accounting. The definitions below are for the “rest of us.”):

  • Operating budget
    • Funding for the day-to-day functioning of the school system, including salaries and benefits, utilities, transportation, and instructional materials like books
  • Capital budget
    • Small capital–Funding for projects like systems upgrades that are too expensive to be covered in the operating budget and are generally only funded by the county.
    • Large capital–Funding for major renovations and construction projects where the total cost is shared between the county and state.
  • Fund balance–Money remaining in the operating budget after all other expenses have been met.

Let me add one more term to our list:

  • Maintenance of effort (MOE)
    • A Maryland law that requires each county to provide at least as much funding per student as was provided in the prior year. Originally established in 1984 and updated several times since then, the law sets the minimum funding a county can provide to its school system. MOE is not a funding formula for an adequate school system. In fact, the state of Maryland has formed a commission to determine appropriate formulas for education funding because the current formula has been deemed to be insufficient. (Called the Kirwan Commission, no recommendations for funding have yet been made.)

I need to make this clear–funding a school system at maintenance of effort is the budgetary equivalent of the much-maligned participation trophy. In fact, state approval is required to fund below MOE.

No one funding at maintenance of effort (or just slightly higher) is a champion of education.

What does this all mean?

In my last article I shared my initial shock and disappointment with the county executive’s proposed budget for FY 2019. Now that I’ve explained some of the jargon, future articles will dive into questions that have been asked about the budget as well as questions that should be asked about the budget.

CCPS blindsided by executive's budget

Positions & Projects on Hold as CCPS Blindsided by County Executive’s Budget

Part 1

Read Part 2–A Field House, Fund Balance, & School Entrances

County Executive Alan McCarthy announced his proposed Cecil County budget for FY 2019 about two weeks ago. I’ve said little since that press conference because I didn’t know where to start and I knew once I started I wouldn’t be stopping any time soon.

I suppose the one year honeymoon with the new county executive was fun while it lasted.

I’m an unashamed fan of the work the leadership and employees of Cecil County Public Schools have done with budgeting and cost savings over the last four years that I’ve been paying attention. Leadership has pulled multitudes of rabbits out of hats to find the funding for projects and programs that the county refused to fund and employees have tightened their belts to help the cause. (Because the cost of healthcare is one of the largest expenses any organization faces each year and, as CCPS has adapted its benefits in an effort to control costs, employees have also been asked to shoulder higher healthcare costs.)

But we can only expect so many magic tricks.

Summarizing this year’s budget process so far…

CCPS put together a budget that addressed the most pressing needs of the school system, namely 29 new positions–nearly all of which would provide direct support to students:

  • 14 new teachers, most in the middle schools where class sizes are climbing
  • 5 positions for social workers and psychologists to provide the services necessary to support the student population.
  • 8 paraprofessionals

Keep in mind that CCPS was forced to cut over 100 jobs several years ago when the county suddenly cut funding.

Notice that pie chart at the top of this page which shows the portion of the CCPS operating budget that is spent on salaries and benefits–85%.

Small capital budget

CCPS requested the lowest amount I’ve seen in the last 4 years at $3.76 million–yet the county only funded $1.76 million and $800k of that is a multi-year contract that they have to fund!

Hmm, a difference of $2 million between the request and the proposed budget. That’s the estimated cost of the fieldhouse at Perryville High School.

Coincidence?

I doubt it.

But I’ll talk about the fieldhouse later.

Some of the deferred projects:

  • Secure entrances at Leeds, Cecilton, Elk Neck, and Holly Hall Elementary Schools–in February, county government feigned concern over these projects and I called them on it then. Based on the county’s proposed budget, I was right.
  • Replacement cooling tower at Bo Manor High School
  • Fieldhouse renovations at North East High School
  • Track resurfacing at Elkton High School

Large capital projects

These projects include new school buildings, major renovations, and other expensive projects like new roofs and HVAC, the county’s proposed budget pushes every project except for the replacement school for Gilpin Manor Elementary which will be completed this fall and the roof replacement at Bo Manor Middle & High out an additional year or more.

Some of the deferred projects:

  • Chesapeake City Elementary replacement school–requested to start in FY20 and now pushed to at least FY21–originally built in 1939!
  • North East Middle School major renovations–requested to start in FY20 and now pushed out past FY23–the building is so old it feels like you’ve stepped onto the set of Grease when you walk in the door. The building has been due for renovations for over 15 years.
  • Kenmore Elementary School–major renovations–requested to start in FY21, now pushed beyond FY23

This is ugly and it’s only going to get uglier.

Here’s what you can do to advocate:

    • Call or email our county council members at jbowlsbey@ccgov.org, dschneckenburger@ccgov.org, gpatchell@ccgov.org, bmeffley@ccgov.org, jgregory@ccgov.org
    • Call the council members at +1(410)996-5201
    • Attend and speak at a county council meeting (Tips for speaking)
      • April 17, 7 PM
      • May 1
        • Citizens’ Corner at 6 PM
        • Council Meeting at 7 PM
        • May 15, 7 PM
      • Attend and speak at the public budget hearing on May 22rd at Elkton High School at 7 PM
      • Learn more about school budget terminology
Bohemia Manor Turf Field

Hey, Bo Manor, the turf isn’t definite yet…

On March 30, Cecil County Executive Alan McCarthy announced his proposed county budget for FY 2019 which included $1.1 to install the county’s third artificial turf playing field at Bohemia Manor High School.

But don’t plan that ribbon cutting yet–

Getting the field into the proposed budget is just the first hurdle for this project.
It’s not a done deal…not by a long shot. The proposed budget is now in the hands of the Cecil County Council for approval and, while they can’t add to the budget, they can, and will, cut items from the budget.
And a $1 million project is an easy target, especially when it’s part of a $2.2 million capital budget for parks and rec, a budget that includes $400,000 for unspecified improvements at the newly acquired Bittersweet park and $700,000 in additional improvements at the Calvert Park complex.
FY19 Cecil County Capital Budget

Budget deliberations are always dramatic and this year’s deliberations will be no different. It would be easier for the council to cut the field than to face the ire of the small but outspoken group who relentlessly lobby for lower taxes year round.

In order for this field to become a reality, the Bo Manor community will need to advocate for the project to the county council.
Until the council approves the budget in early June, nothing is final.

Advocacy is a group effort

When we advocated for the turf field at Perryville High School during last year’s budget deliberations, we tried to send at least one community member, be it a coach, a parent, or another interested party, to each speaking opportunity, and we encouraged people to join them as a show of support.

Only one person needs to speak but make it clear that the others in attendance share the same concern. One night I convinced my husband and teenage sons to wear Perryville swag and sit in the crowd at the council meeting while I spoke. On a different night our principal and some coaches joined us at a council meeting. Every touch counts.

Email is also effective

Not everyone is comfortable with public speaking so keep in mind that email is also effective. One of our coaches took the time to spell out the names of this players and the injuries they suffered that he attributed to our field conditions in previous seasons. Tell the council your unique story.

Here’s what you can do to advocate:

    • Call or email our county council members at jbowlsbey@ccgov.org, dschneckenburger@ccgov.org, gpatchell@ccgov.org, bmeffley@ccgov.org, jgregory@ccgov.org
    • Call the council members at +1(410)996-5201
    • Attend and speak at a county council meeting (Tips for speaking)
      • April 17, 7 PM
      • May 1
        • Citizens’ Corner at 6 PM
        • Council Meeting at 7 PM
        • May 15, 7 PM
      • Attend and speak at the public budget hearing on May 22rd at Elkton High School at 7 PM
Cecil County Budget for FY 2018

New Cecil County Executive Brings New Momentum to Budget Process

When Alan McCarthy was sworn in as Cecil County Executive in December, I had more questions than answers on his plans for the county. Would he stay the course of the previous administration by keeping the county’s head barely above water, so focused on merely surviving that planning for the future almost seemed like an afterthought, or would he be a force for change?

In March, he announced his first budget and demonstrated that he was setting a course that would start moving the county forward.

Yes, the proposed budget includes tax increases but, for the first time in years, the budget is balanced and doesn’t rely on fund balance to do so. For nearly 20 years, the County had been depleting its savings to cover budgetary shortfalls. That ends with this budget–well, it could end with this budget, IF the Cecil County Council votes to accept Dr. McCarthy’s budget as proposed next week.

Proposed Cecil County Income Tax Rate

The proposed budget includes a .20 increase in the income tax rate to 3.00, which if approved, would be the first increase since 2001. The new rate remains inline with those of our in-state neighbors, Harford County and Kent County.

Few things are less expensive in 2017 than they were in 2001–actually, nothing is less expensive.

Proposed Cecil County Property Tax Rate

The proposed budget includes a .0500 increase in the property tax rate to 1.0414. Cecil County actually reduced its property tax rate during the recession and has remained level for the past five years and, even with this increase, remains inline with the rates in Harford and Kent Counties.

Maryland property tax trends

Changes in State Funding have Hurt Cecil County

Even if no other expenses in the county increased in recent years (a thought so preposterous that it’s laughable), funding decisions at the state level have hurt Cecil County.

Highway User Revenues Cut

Each year, the state collects millions of dollars in tolls and gas taxes and, in the past, 30% of those funds were returned to the counties for the maintenance and repair of locally-owned roads and bridges. But in FY 2010, the state decided to reduce the portion returned to the counties to just 10%. At the county executive’s town hall on the budget in February, we were told Cecil County’s share of the highway user revenue plummeted from $6,229,808 in FY 2008 to just $644,934 for FY 2018 (projected).

So where do all those tolls the state of Maryland collects for the two bridges on the main roads into Cecil County end up? In the state’s accounts or on projects in other counties.  How much money are we talking about? In FY 2016, $11.6 million in tolls were collected on the Thomas J. Hatem bridge that carries Rt. 40 over the Susquehanna River and $168.9 million in tolls were collected on the Millard E. Tydings bridge that carries I-95. Let those numbers sink in.

Regardless of the total collected, a pittance ends up coming back to Cecil County.

highway user revenues

Teacher Pensions “Shifted”

Not only did the state opt to slash the counties’ cut of the highway funds but they also chose to push the financial responsibility for teacher pensions, an expense that had historically be funded by the state down, to the counties. That expense of nearly $4 million per year was phased-in over the 2013-2016 fiscal years–while Cecil County, like most in the state, was still reeling from the recession. You can read more about the 2012 change here.

Cecil County Teacher Pensions

In summary, we’ve seen highway funds dry up and teacher pensions “shifted.” All the while, Cecil County did little to offset those crippling financial blows.

Ok, enough doom and gloom. Let’s talk about a bright spot of this budget cycle.

Agencies Advocating for the Greater Good

The spirit of this year’s budget conversations is different from those in the last few years. In the past, county agencies and supporters were pitted against each other in a battle for any available additional funds. But this year we’ve heard representatives from those agencies advocate for their own budget as a component of the overall proposed budget.

Speakers at last week’s budget hearing represented Cecil College, Cecil County Public Library, Cecil County Public Schools, Cecil County Emergency Services and emergency-related associations, and Cecil County Parks and Recreation and I’m sure a few groups I’ve forgotten who were all advocating for the budget as proposed. In a time when many are divided, it is refreshing to see these groups band together for the greater good.

That’s not to say there weren’t those speakers fighting against the budget and the necessary tax increases. From my tally, it was pretty evenly split with 20 speakers supporting the budget and 17 speaking against it.

That makes it even more important that the county council hear from us before they continue deliberations on Thursday and vote next Tuesday.

Contact the County Council Today

For too long, Cecil County has been trying to make do with less and we’ve just continued to dig ourselves a deeper hole. At some point, we will have to invest in our community. If we don’t start this year, when will we?

There is never a “good” time. We need to start now.

Be part of the solution. Email the county council to tell them you support the proposed budget. Copy and paste these email addresses jbowlsbey@ccgov.org, dschneckenburger@ccgov.org, gpatchell@ccgov.org, bmeffley@ccgov.org, jgregory@ccgov.org

What to Expect When Speaking to the County Council

Budget season is in full-swing and some of us will be speaking to the Cecil County Council to advocate for specific organizations or projects. For those who have never attended a council meeting, I thought I’d give you an idea of what to expect.

It’s important to talk with the council now

In March, County Executive Alan McCarthy presented his proposed budget to the county council. Now the budget is in the hands of the council and the various departments covered by the county budget will appear before the council to plead the case for their specific funding. Between now and the vote to approve the budget in early June, the council will deliberate and accept public comment.

That’s where we come in.

The council can’t add to the proposed budget but they can cut from it. And since this budget includes modest tax increases, the council will most likely spend the coming weeks frantically trying to pare the budget down to something that doesn’t require a tax increase.

Worthwhile and necessary projects in just about any county agency could be cut if there isn’t enough public support.

Keep in mind–there is a small but vocal group of citizens who attend most council meetings in order to badger the council about county spending and budgets. We need to be just as vocal in our support of the funding for those things that will lead to a brighter future for our county, like education and infrastructure.

Opportunities to speak to the council

The county council holds legislative meetings on the first and third Tuesdays of each month at 7 PM. On the first Tuesday of the month, the legislative meeting is preceded by the Citizens’ Corner at 6 PM. Check the Cecil County government website for dates, times, and agendas of upcoming meetings  as well as minutes and audio recordings of past meetings.

Upcoming meetings

  • Attend and speak at a county council meeting
    • June 5
      • Citizens’ Corner at 6 PM
      • Council Meeting at 7 PM
  • Attend and speak at the public budget hearing on May 22th at Elkton High School at 7 PM

Sign up before the meeting

If you would like to speak during the public comment portion of a legislative meeting or during the Citizens’ Corner you are asked to sign up before the sessions begin, however, time permitting, after everyone who signed up has had an opportunity to speak, the council will usually ask if anyone else in attendance would like to make additional comments before ending a session.

What to expect

Speakers are usually timed during both legislative meetings and Citizens’ Corner. I can’t remember if the limit is 3 minutes or 5 minutes, regardless, there’s a large clock in the room and you’ll be able to watch the countdown.

Communication with the council is very different between the two types of sessions. During Citizens’ Corner, council members can respond to your comments and you can have a conversation. During the public comment session of the legislative session, council members can not respond to you. In fact, if you are a little nervous about speaking, you might find it easier to do so during the legislative session when you won’t be asked any follow-up questions.

What to say

When your name is called, you’ll walk to the podium in the front of the room where you’ll be asked to state your name and the name of your town. After that, it’s time for you to share your story.

You don’t have to be an expert on the topic you are there to talk about. We are experts in OUR experiences. For those of us advocating for public education, we may be living the education experience every day. Whether you’re a teacher living it with students in the classroom or a parent or caregiver living it with your student at home, every experience is unique and worth being heard.

Perryville, it’s your turn

In the case of the Perryville community, we will be out supporting the installation of a turf field at Perryville High School, a project County Executive Alan McCarthy included in his proposed FY 2018 budget. If the funding makes it through the budget process, Perryville would be the first high school in Cecil County to have a turf field. As you can imagine, this is a big deal for our community.

Bo Manor Turf Field

While the turf field at Bohemia Manor High School is included in the budget, the council has the ability to cut it before their vote in June and, with its $1 million price tag, the field is an easy target during budget deliberations.

We need to convey to the council the many positive impacts such a facility would make on our communities. We need to bring numbers to meetings–even if only one person speaks, we should try to have several people attend the meeting with them.

Other ways to advocate

If your schedule doesn’t permit you to attend a council meeting or if public speaking isn’t for you, emails and phone calls to the County Council are just as effective.

  • Email our county council members at jbowlsbey@ccgov.org, dschneckenburger@ccgov.org, gpatchell@ccgov.org, bmeffley@ccgov.org, jgregory@ccgov.org
  • Call the council members at +1(410)996-5201

Other Posts about the FY19 Budget

Positions & Projects on Hold as CCPS Blindsided by County Executive’s Budget

School Budget Terminology

A Field House, Fund Balance, & School Entrances–Answers to Frequently Asked Questions

perryville high school turf

Are you going to let a turf field slip through your hands?

I’ve opened this blog post dozens of times in the last month with the intention of finishing it and hitting publish. But each time, I struggled to figure out what story I wanted to tell. Did I want to talk about the history of the facilities at Perryville High School? Or recap the happenings from Cecil County Executive Alan McCarthy’s town hall on the FY 2018 in February? Or explain that I had little hope that Perryville would see their request for a field house finally answered in this budget?
But when I attended the county executive’s press conference to release his proposed budget for FY 2018 and the story took an unexpected twist. Here’s the audio from the press conference
I sat in the meeting room that dreary Friday morning skimming the budget in brief,  expecting to find nothing in there for Perryville. Instead, I saw this:
Cecil County Budget Perryville Turf
A turf field? For Perryville? It isn’t a field house but it comes at about half the price tag of a field house and our current field is in terrible shape. (Honestly, the fields at the other high schools in the county aren’t much better.)
But it’s not a done deal…the proposed budget is now in the hands of the Cecil County Council for approval. The council can’t add to the proposed budget but they can, and will, cut items from the budget.
And a $1 million project is an easy target for a council desperate to avoid tax increases. (Yes, the county executive’s budget includes modest increases in the property and income tax rates. Read more here)
There is no telling what type of shenanigans we’ll witness during these budget deliberations.
We could watch that turf field slip right through our hands…if we don’t tell the county council how important this project is to our community.
It would be easier for the council to cut the field than to face the ire of the small but outspoken group who is constantly crying for lower taxes. As you can imagine, this group is already in a frenzy over the prospect of a tax increase and it’s only been a week since the budget was released.
We will need to advocate for this project to ensure it becomes a reality for our community.

Here’s what you can do to advocate:

    • Call or email our county council members at jbowlsbey@ccgov.org, dschneckenburger@ccgov.org, gpatchell@ccgov.org, bmeffley@ccgov.org, jgregory@ccgov.org
    • Call the council members at +1(410)996-5201
    • Attend and speak at a county council meeting (Tips for speaking)
      • April 18, 7 PM
      • May 2
        • Citizens’ Corner at 6 PM
        • Council Meeting at 7 PM
      • May 16, 7 PM
      • Attend and speak at the public budget hearing on May 23rd at Elkton High School at 7 PM
Watch this web page for updates as the budget season progresses.
On the Fringe

On the Fringe of the Board of Education Race

Two seats on the board of education for Cecil County Public Schools are up for vote on Tuesday and, in this election year with a highly contentious presidential race, it’s easy to see how the a voter might think the race for board of education is inconsequential.

Any person running for the position must be interested in advocating for public education, right? Not so fast.

What part of “non-partisan” don’t they understand?

During the primary campaign I wrote two articles outlining some of the responsibilities of board of education members and the laws they take an oath to uphold. (Here are links: Maybe He Filed for the Wrong Office and Are Fringe Candidates Attempting Hostile Takeover of Cecil County Board of Education?) Also in those articles, I demonstrated that board of education candidates Kevin Emmerich and Ron Lobos, running together as the “Conservative Education Slate,” had expressed views that were in direct conflict with those responsibilities and laws.

Despite the defeat of his running mate in the primary, Mr. Emmerich, who is in a race against current board member and former Cecil County commissioner Bill Manlove, doesn’t appear to have changed his stance.

In a post on his Facebook page stating his “areas of focus” from September 29, 2016 , Mr. Emmerich writes, “I also attended the CCPS budget presentations this year and that is when I decided the Board of Ed. needed a conservative voice and felt I should run for Board of Ed. in the 1st District.” He makes no mention of any specific issues he had with the budget presentations or suggestions for how he would address those issues. He just dropped the buzzword that he believes to be his ticket to a seat on the board.

Emmerich Platform

There will be homework

Holding a seat on the Cecil County Board of Education means more than attending a meeting for two or three hours every few weeks and posing for the occasional photo opportunity. Board members also spend countless hours outside the walls of the Carver Center visiting schools, reviewing documents like budgets, policies, and annual reports that will be  discussed at future meetings, and meeting with county officials and education advocates.

In short, board of education members spend a lot of time doing their own homework. Mr. Emmerich might have considered doing his own homework before he wrote that post in September. Let’s talk about a few of his points:

  • “More budgeted funds going to the classroom or deferred maintenance.” Another vague statement with no citations for the budget line items that he feels show funds being spent somewhere other than in the classroom or on maintenance. All the CCPS budget documents and annual reports for the last five years are posted on the CCPS website so there’s no reason not to provide facts to support his position–that is, if there are facts that support his position.
  • “COMAR calls for substance abuse awareness in health class. With the amount of drug abuse in this County, I wonder if what we’re doing is enough?” If Mr. Emmerich read the documents supporting the CCPS budget request, all of which are available online, he would have seen that the school system has made adding drug education teachers and student services resource teachers a priority in the last two years. With a little more research he would seen that a presentation about the CCPS “LifeSkills” training program was made at the July 11, 2016 board of education meeting.
  • “CCPS should encourage individual achievement over Government dependence.” And this point? I have no words.
  • “Work with the Administration to fund the schools needs in ways that don’t cause unnecessary increases in Maintenance of Effort for the County.” I can’t wait to hear his suggestions for this point.
  • “CCPS should post performance data in a comparative format. Data included would be test scores for last 3 years, total number of students and cost per student. This would allow the citizens of the county to judge the schools effectiveness.” It looks like Mr. Emmerich needs an introduction to Maryland Report Card, the Maryland State Department of Education’s public website that houses enrollment, demographic, and assessment data for every county and school in the state. The site includes all the data he’s requesting except for the cost per student and that was included in the board of education’s presentation to the county council which is available online and included below. Cecil County ranks 19 out of 24 districts for education funding per student and, at $5,281, the county’s portion of that funding is considerably lower than the state average of $6,914–$1,633 lower to be exact.

Maryland Funding per Student

And finally…

  • More CCPS contracts should be available to local contractors–Again, Mr. Emmerich doesn’t provide any facts to support this point. What geographic area does he consider local? Cecil County borders on two other states and many of our county’s residents work for out of state employers. Does he consider that local? Further, CCPS is required to follow strict policies for procurement (here are just two of them Procurement Policy and Procurement Procedures) and the bid recommendations are presented, discussed, and voted on at board of education meetings and supporting documents are available in Board Docs. Additionally, it was noted at a recent board meeting that it is becoming increasingly difficult to find qualified contractors who are interested in bidding on some projects because an improving economy and construction booms in neighboring school districts have created new options for contractors.

Vote on Tuesday

Before voting on Tuesday, please do your own homework. Learn more about the candidates for board of education and make sure you vote for the two candidates who are running for the right reasons–the nearly 16,000 students in our public schools.

Vote Manlove

Vote Fazzino

North East Library Funding

New North East Library Funding Could Be Cut

Reduction at county level could reduce state funding as well

At least most of us agree–the North East branch of the Cecil County Public Library needs a new building. Yay, for agreement!

We also seem to be in agreement about the chosen location for the new library–the North East Station shopping center that is anchored by Food Lion and Lowes. Another cheer for agreement!

One thing we can’t seem to agree on is the amount of funding the county should provide for the construction of the new library. Boo for disagreement but without it I’d only be able to write about sunshine and rainbows–and that gets boring after a while.

Right now there is a wide divide between the projected cost from library system and the amount of funding some members of the Cecil County Council have proposed for the project.

Why does North East need a new library?

The North East library was built in 1991 and is just 2,800 sq. ft., far smaller than acceptable for a library serving a community the size of North East. You can read more here

Limitations of current branch

  • Only 12 parking spaces
  • Only a handful of computers which means visitors sometimes must wait 30 minutes or more for their turn
  • Only two study tables, one for adults and one for children

Limitations severely impact the library’s youngest patrons

According to a representative of the library, for every 3 children who participate in the Summer Reading and Learning Program in Elkton, only 1 child participates in North East. Every year, hundreds of children are closed out of library educational programs and classes in North East due to lack of space. Area schools are forced to transport students to other libraries to work on research projects because they simply cannot fit a class in the building and because resources are limited.

Population growth of 50% projected by 2040

We want to build a library of a size that adequately serves not just the current population of the area but one that can sufficiently meet the needs of a growing community. Cecil County made the mistake of constructing an undersized building for the current building and the library was too small from the day it opened.

We can’t afford to make that mistake again. We must do it right the first time–or would this be the second time?

The Wilmington Area Planning Council projects the population of the greater North East area to grow 50% by 2040 (from 23,259 in 2010 to 34,862 in 2040). Here’s a link to their data According to the state of Maryland’s standards for library construction, a library branch to serve a community of this size should be 30,000 sq. ft.

New North East branch would become new system headquarters

CCPL is currently headquartered in the same building as the Elkton branch, a building of 25,000 sq. ft. Elkton’s population is a little bigger than North East’s right now and is also expected to increase by about 50% by 2040 so it won’t be long before the branch needs to use every bit of those 25,000 sq. ft. in order meet the community’s needs.

Moving the headquarters to the new North East branch extends the useful life of the Elkton branch by making more space available for public services and alleviating the overflowing parking lot. (CCPL is also working with Cecil County Public Schools to increase available parking at the Elkton branch as part of the Gilpin Manor Elementary School replacement project.)

Disagreement over project costs

In the proposed Cecil County Capital Improvement Plan (CIP) for FY 2017, the library project is estimated to cost $18.6 million to complete (the land has already been purchased and the cost was split between the county and state. You can read more about that here. This project has been in the county’s CIP since at least 2010. Here’s a link to the proposed CIP for FY 2017.

North East Library CIP

During last Thursday’s county council deliberations over the FY 2017 budget, Councilman Dan Schneckenberger proposed that the council limit Cecil County’s contribution to the project to $12.8 million. You can listen to the debate in the audio from the meeting (1:39:00 mark in this recording). Here’s an article from the Cecil Whig about the meeting.

Funding Cuts Jeopardize State Aid

I’m new to the library budget but it’s my understanding that, like public schools, large capital projects for public libraries must also be reviewed and approved at the state level in order to be considered eligible for state grant funding. State aid for these projects represents millions of dollars of funding and is contingent on presenting a well-justified project that uses universal planning standards and population projections to size the building, as well as accurate cost projections that are reviewed annually by a licensed architect.

The state of Maryland has already reviewed the initial documents and cost projections for the North East branch as proposed by CCPL and County Executive Tari Moore in the CIP. At this point, alterations to the project, which would potentially bring it out of compliance with state standards, risk that support for the project.

Email the county now and voice your support for the project as proposed

The county council is scheduled to vote on the FY 2017 budget for Cecil County on Tuesday night. If we want to see the North East branch proceed as proposed, we need to make our voices heard by the county administration.

Here are ways you can contact the council:

  • Copy and paste these email addresses: tmoore@ccgov.org, amccarthy@ccgov.org, jbowlsbey@ccgov.org, dschneckenburger@ccgov.org, gpatchell@ccgov.org, rhodge@ccgov.org, awein@ccgov.org, randerson@ccgov.org, wrobinson@ccgov.org
  • Attend and speak at the Citizens’ Corner session with the County Council at 6 PM Tuesday evening
  • Call the council members at +1(410)996-5201