It’s been nearly 8 weeks since Cecil County Executive Tari Moore introduced her proposed budget for FY 2017 and I’ve hardly posted a word about it. I’m sure some were hoping that I’d overlooked the fact that the Cecil County Council will be finalizing the budget in these next two weeks in advance of their vote on the final budget on June 7. I may have been distracted by an ugly county primary election and the high school lacrosse season but the bigger reason for not posting anything about the budget was that I have such mixed emotions about it.
Yes, there are positive parts of the budget for Cecil County Public Schools but there are parts of the budget that are disappointing for our school system, its employees, and the families and communities it serves.
Since the proposed budget was introduced at a press conference on April 1, I was holding out hope that it was an elaborate April Fool’s prank.
Unfortunately, after waiting 8 weeks for the “gotcha!” I’ve now got to face the facts.
So, here it goes, the good, the bad, and the ugly of the proposed FY 2017 budget. Click here to read the budget in brief document
The Good–Continuing the renewed commitment to large capital projects
Prior to the introduction of the FY 2016 budget last spring, it took herculean effort to secure funding from Cecil County for CCPS-related projects, most notably the new Cecil County School of Technology and the renovation of Perryville Elementary School. And without the county funding its share of additional large capital projects, the state of Maryland wouldn’t provide funding for its share of the projects. This meant that Cecil County missed out on potentially millions of dollars of capital projects during those years–basically “leaving money on the table” that the state would end up sending to other school systems.
During down economic times in Cecil County, those additional funds had the potential to change the lives of local tradespeople employed on infrastructure projects.
Cecil County Executive Tari Moore surprised many with her FY 2016 budget. For those of us advocating for public education, it was a pleasant surprise that included the funds for planning the replacement of Gilpin Manor Elementary School and a commitment to fund the planning of new school every two years.
Once planning funds were secured, CCPS set out designing not just the new Gilpin Manor school, but also developing those plans as a prototype for the Chesapeake City Elementary School replacement. Another example of CCPS leadership having the foresight and resourcefulness to make the most cost effective use of county funding.
The proposed FY 2017 continues the commitment to large capital projects for our schools. In addition to the final year’s funding for the extensive renovation of Perryville Elementary School, the proposed FY 2017 budget includes three significant new projects for CCPS:
Gilpin Manor Elementary School
With the plans for GMES nearly completed and approved at all levels, funding needed to be secured to begin construction. The county executive’s proposed budget includes $4.1 million in funding for the first year of construction. Additionally, CCPS was notified earlier this month that the state of Maryland approved nearly $4 million for towards its share of the project. This would be the first completely new school in the county since Rising Sun High School and Elk Neck Elementary School in 1991. Here’s the story from the Cecil Whig
The proposed budget includes the county’s share of funding for boiler replacement projects at Bohemia Manor Middle/High School, Kenmore Elementary School, Cherry Hill Middle School, and Thomson Estates Elementary School. These projects were also recently approved to receive the state’s share of the necessary funding.
Chesapeake City Elementary School
The current Chesapeake City Elementary School was built in 1939 and lacks many features of a modern educational facility. The FY 2017 budget includes $900,000 to purchase the land necessary for the project.
The Bad–Minimal, er, maintenance of effort for the operating budget
My husband doesn’t follow the school budget process closely so our conversation that night after Tari Moore’s press conference to introduce her proposed budget went like this.
“What’s it called again–minimal effort?”
“Close enough and probably more accurate. It’s maintenance of effort.”
“Why did they even pretend to prepare a budget for the school system if they were just going to plug numbers into a formula and call it done?”
“My thoughts exactly. Do the quick math and ‘Voila, budget!'”
Contrary to what you might have read from various sources, including candidates for board of education, maintenance of effort is not a formula for adequate school funding. Instead, it’s a state law that provides a formula for the minimum funding a county can provide to its schools and was enacted to prevent a county from drastically and routinely underfunding public education.
“…the county governing body shall appropriate local funds to the school operating budget in an amount no less than the product of the county’s full–time equivalent enrollment for the current fiscal year and the local appropriation on a per pupil basis for the prior fiscal year.” Md. EDUCATION Code Ann. § 5-202
There are quite a few expenses that are not covered in the maintenance of effort formula yet are still the county’s responsibility. For example, the formula doesn’t provide any funding for pre-kindergarten students or take into account the added expenses associated with special education services even though these programs are required by law.
While there are a few situations where a county can request a waiver to fund its schools below the maintenance of effort, such requests must be approved by the state and are not taken lightly.
The FY 2016 budget felt like a light at the end of the long, dark tunnel for our school system. It included money to create a handful of sorely needed new positions, mainly in the area of special education. These new positions replace just a fraction of the jobs that had been cut in the last decade due to lack of funding. It also provided for cost of living and step increases for employees, expenses that are necessary to keep pay scales competitive with those in neighboring systems, both instate and out of state. As Superintendent Dr. D’ette Devine pointed out, “Pennsylvania loves to get teachers that we’ve trained,” but who leave our county for higher pay.
The CCPS FY 2017 budget request included 29 new positions:
- Special education teachers and paraprofessionals
- Music & art teachers
- Drug education & student services teachers (to assist students who are dealing with the social issues in our communities)
- Instructional coaches (The state requires that all new teachers be mentored for their first several years. I believe there are currently only two mentors serving the entire county.)
Unfortunately, a maintenance of effort budget allows for few, if any, of those positions to be added.
Finally, let’s rip the Band-aid off and talk about the County Executive’s proposed small capital budget.
Small capital projects are those that are too expensive to cover from the operating budget yet do not meet the criteria of large capital projects. These projects are not eligible for state funding and are solely the county’s responsibility. Few projects have been funded in recent years and I was hopeful that we would see an end to that trend.
Sadly, that wasn’t the case.
The county’s failure to provide adequate funding for improvements at our schools is well documented:
Cecil County has watched the CCPS deferred maintenance list balloon to $44 million over the last decade yet it has no plan for completing the projects on the list. At some point, the county needs to stop waiting for the Deferred Maintenance Fairy to arrive on the wave of some kind of miraculous economic boom. Hope is not a plan.
During the county executive’s press conference to announce her proposed budget for FY 2017, I asked about the small capital budget:
You can listen to it in this recording starting at the 18:00 minute mark. Here’s a transcript:
ME: (inaudible)…small cap budget…
CRAIG WHITEFORD (former Cecil County budget manager) : …For the public school system. Within the confines of our entire budgetary document, not just the budget in brief, although I think we did make mention of the small cap, I can just tell you. In the small cap for the public school system, it was Rising Sun High tennis courts and the associated basketball court.
WINSTON ROBINSON (finance director)/TARI MOORE: Along with the BTOP and Johnson Controls contract.
ME: And the other things like the cooling tower at Perryville?
WHITEFORD: They’re not proposed to be funded in the proposed budget [MOORE: That’s correct.] at this time.
ME: And if there’s a failure is the county prepared for such an event?
WHITEFORD: Well just like we do any time when something is proposed in the confines of a budget, we make ourselves available. It’s not as if the conversations occur after that type of thing would happen. Thoes conversations are ongoing. Our lines of communication remain open and we work together to try to meet the special needs as they occur so we’ll continue to do that.
Essentially, the vibe I got from the conversation was “Good luck, CCPS! You’re on your own (again).”
The Broadband Technology Opportunities Program (BTOP) and Energy Performance Contract are the first two line items in the prioritized list CCPS provided to the county executive and they must be funded. The county can decide which pocket they’d like to use to fund those line items, but they must be funded.
The only other small capital project funded in the proposed budget? The replacement of the tennis courts and basketball courts at Rising Sun High School–a project that is sorely needed but is 10th on the request.
That’s right. CCPS provided a prioritized list of projects with the replacement of a cooling tower as third on the list–only outranked by the BTOP and Energy Performance Contract–and Cecil County chose to disregard the recommendations from the tradespeople who inspect, maintain, and repair these facilities and instead make the political move to recommend improvements at Rising Sun High School.
Why would they do such a thing? I can only think that the county decided to put CCPS in the unenviable position of taking funding slated for athletic facilities at Rising Sun High School and using it, instead, for a critical infrastructure project at Perryville High School. You can’t just pull a cooling tower out of a warehouse and install it overnight. If that cooling tower failed before it could be replaced it would be completely disruptive to the students and staff at Perryville.
Once again, Cecil County pinned CCPS between a rock and hard place.
And, once again, CCPS rose to the occasion.
They announced at the most recent board of education meeting that the school system had received approval for a nearly $400,000 discount on the FY 2016 BTOP expense and was applying for a discount of nearly $450,000 on the FY 2017 expense. Additionally, there is a bill up for council approval on June 21 that would transfer $400,000 from BTOP to three capital projects:
- Replacement of the cooling tower at Perryville High School
- Installation of a new waterline at Cecil Manor Elementary School
- Partial replacement of the galvanized plumbing at Bohemia Manor High School
The leadership team at CCPS should be commended for continuing to find creative solutions to seemingly unsolvable problems. Here’s an article from the Cecil Whig: Federal broadband discount will help CCPS
Despite this bit of good news, there are still many projects that Cecil County will be forced to address at some point and there are still no plans for addressing them.
There’s still time to make a difference in the FY 2017 budget. Here’s how you can help:
- Attend the budget hearing Thursday, May 26 at 7 PM at Elkton High School
- Speak in support of education funding at an upcoming county council meeting. Here’s the meeting schedule.
- Contact our county officials
If you are partial to mailing actual letters, send them to this address:
200 Chesapeake Blvd.
Elkton, MD 21921
Cecil County Executive
Cecil County Council
You can find more contact info on the Cecil County website.