School budget balanced, but questions remain

Contracts, state could have impact

Wednesday, March 3, 2010

Despite being presented as balanced, uncertainty is a major factor in the 2011 fiscal year budget for the Calvert County public school system.

The $190.93 million proposed budget was presented Thursday evening at Calvert High School in Prince Frederick by Calvert County public schools Superintendent Jack Smith, who spent the first half of his presentation highlighting strengths within the school system as well as areas that could continue to see improvement.

In the former category, Smith brought up stewardship of school facilities; rising SAT results; 100 percent of Calvert County high school seniors meeting High School Assessment requirements to graduate; more students signing up for advanced placement courses; Maryland being ranked No. 1 by Education Week Magazine; and Northern Middle School in Owings being named one of the state's "Blue Ribbon Schools."

In the latter category, Smith brought up test scores of black and economically disadvantaged students, as well as Maryland State Assessment math scores diminishing slightly when students transition from elementary to middle school.

Before going over exact numbers in the budget, Smith also pointed out, "There are many more questions than answers."

He said that while many of the answers to these questions depend on the 2010 Maryland General Assembly legislative session, which ends April 12, the budget also depends on new contract negotiations with the unions — Calvert Education Association or CEA, which represents teachers, and the Calvert Association of Educational Support Staff or CAESS, which represents support staff.

The three-year contracts for both CEA and CAESS — which had to be renegotiated for fiscal year 2010 — both expire this year, meaning new contracts have to be negotiated regardless of circumstances.

Smith also said that the union representing public school administrators is being asked to renegotiate its contract, though it has yet to expire.

The balanced budget Smith presented Thursday evening contained the same salaries and 0.5 percent cost of living increases that teachers, support staff and administrators have been receiving for fiscal year 2010.

"We'll have to cut whatever is needed to cut in order to meet the contracts negotiated this summer," Smith said in a later interview, adding that he is unsure of what to expect in terms of staff attrition.

"Most people are staying put these days," Smith said regarding employee retirement. " … [The budget] is balanced right now, but we have to renegotiate with the administrators and new-negotiate with the teachers and support staff unions."

Another uncertainty Smith pointed out on Thursday evening was maintenance of effort laws, which require that counties do not decrease per-pupil spending from one fiscal year to the next.

Currently, Smith said, there are about seven or eight bills pending in the legislative session that concentrate on maintenance of effort, possibly leading to county or state waivers.

"It is absolutely something that should not happen in our state," Smith said Thursday of a potential statewide maintenance of effort waiver.

The Calvert County Board of County Commissioners, Smith said, usually exceeds maintenance of effort and this year asked that the school board return cost savings.

Because of losing these extra funds, which usually roll over from one year to the next, local funding was down from last year's $1.02 million to $435,000.

Smith said that for fiscal year 2011 the school system was also expecting to receive $82.26 million in state dollars; $494,000 in federal dollars; and $105.03 million in county appropriations.

The school system is also projected to receive $2.7 million from the federal American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, though Smith warned that this additional funding will stop in 2012.

Also, as a self-insured organization when it comes to health benefits, Smith said the school system "must be well positioned as changes come out of the federal and state government."

Despite uncertainties, Smith said "the school system needs to continue paying our employees well at the top of our state."

The budget indicated that 42 percent of school funds will go toward instructional salaries.

"I really do appreciate what you do every day," Smith said to the staff members in the audience, adding, " … On a personal level, because five of my children graduated from here, thank you very much."

CEA President Debbie Russ was the first of two members of the public who opted to speak during the public comments portion of the presentation.

"We love our jobs," Russ said of Calvert County public school teachers, who she added frequently have to sacrifice time with their families and deserve something of "equity and fairness" in return.

Russ continued that while the recent decision to allow teachers to exchange sick leave with each other and other employees was "a wonderful way to begin," the board could do more.

She suggested that the statewide one-to-five day waiver to make up school days lost because of snow be extended to staff as well as students.

The second speaker was Patuxent Elementary School teacher Carol Howard, who is a CEA member as well.

"It is very important for me to feel appreciated and feel of value," Howard said, continuing that she hoped the school system would look at alternative cost-saving measures.

"On President's Day, when almost the whole world was shut down, why were all our buildings open?" Howard asked, continuing that decisions like that cost the school system unnecessary dollars.

Following public comments the board members each had a chance to speak.

"We want your comments … Please comment in any and every way that you would like," Board of Education President William Phalen said.

"We have the best teachers in the state and probably the nation, and we're going to do the best we can for you," board member Eugene Karol commented.

The Calvert County Board of Education will take Smith's proposed budget and all public comments before adopting its proposed budget on April 22. The budget will then go to the Calvert County Board of County Commissioners.