Education was the primary topic for the last in a series of Around the County in 80 Minutes — Keep Carroll Strong meetings hosted by County Commissioners Doug Howard and Haven Shoemaker.
The Monday, Feb. 11, session at Liberty High School in Eldersburg could easily have been called Save Our Schools, resembling at times a pep rally, with most of the several hundred residents in attendance seeming to enthusiastically embrace what Howard and Shoemaker, both of whom are Republicans, had to say.
Monday night's audience included a number of educators and Liberty High School students. Some expressed outrage and dismay over the proposed reductions. Several expressed irritation that the other three county commissioners, all of whom are also Republicans, did not attend the meeting.
Jennifer Day, an Eldersburg resident, with two students in the county school system, reiterated some of the points that Howard made.
She said that maintaining an excellent public school system helps attract businesses to the county and also factors in maintaining strong property values.
Day gave Howard and Shoemaker a message to take back to Commissioners Doug Rausch, Richard Rothschild and Robin Frazier: "Please say yes to education for continuing growth and prosperity."
The two commissioners have been barnstorming the county, holding a series of community meetings which began Jan. 24 at North Carroll High School.
The purpose of these informational meetings was to give residents a preview of the version of the Fiscal Year 2014 Carroll County Budget that Commissioners Howard and Shoemaker support.
They are trying to rally the public to persuade their fellow commissioners to support Howard and Shoemaker's budget plan, which they feel will stave off severe cuts that could affect the county school system in particular.
"We have passed some very conservative budgets in the past two years, and I believe that's what we were elected to do," Shoemaker said. "But we weren't elected to dismantle (county) government."
The two have urged residents to make their voices heard as the budgetary cycle gets under way and emphasized that, in a worst case scenario, the cuts being discussed by other Board of County Commissioners members could result in the closure of some county schools and the Hashawah Nature Center in Westminster.
"There is a very clear divide (concerning school funding) on the (commissioner) board," Howard said. "It's clear we are at a crossroads, and we are going make some changes that are going to take us in one direction or another."
Shoemaker said that, in addition to the possible closure of Hashawah, the budget cuts being entertained by some commissioners could eliminate as many as 150 jobs in the school system, the county's largest employer.
That could lead to, "a whole host of other undesirable results," he said.
During Monday evening's meeting, Howard used a chart to demonstrate how the county school system is caught in a fiscal crunch due to reductions in state funding even as an additional $4 million for the state teachers' pension fund has been passed on to the county from the state.
Howard said that in the past fiscal year, state funding for the school system was down $3.6 million "from where we thought we would be."
The process has been complicated by a small decrease in countywide school enrollment, on which state funding is partially based.
Howard insisted this enrollment downturn is only temporary, and in a few years, school enrollment will once again rise.
Howard is proposing a FY 2014 school budget of $164 million, which is significantly less than previous budgets.
But it is significantly higher than "maintenance of effort" funding, which is the minimum amount the county is permitted to fund under state law, and the level of funding that some county commissioners are seeking in the FY 2014 budget.
One suggestion for reducing the education budget is to close one or more schools, or close media centers in all county schools.
Howard believes that would be a mistake and a sacrifice of long-term quality of education for short-term fiscal gains.
He said it was his and Shoemaker's shared sense of urgency that compelled them to "go out and tell our side of the story."
He conceded that, at times, it has been "a very weird phenomenon," particularly when they've made presentations in the districts of fellow commissioners who don't agree with them on the education budget.
Howard said that closing even one county school would create a ripple effect that would disrupt and over-burden the remaining schools, and create a nightmare of redistricting and reshuffled bus routes.
"There is no savings — zero savings — in closing schools," he said. "None."
But with school closings looming as a remote possibility, Howard and Shoemaker urged residents to contact their commissioners, keep an eye on the budget process and become part of it as it unfolds this spring.
Howard said he believes the final shape and outcome of the FY 2014 budget is going to determine if "we will keep Carroll strong or not.
"The public must be part of the process," he said. "We want people to weigh in and exert some influence."
During the evening, Howard also outlined a number of additional proposals for both the FY 2014 capital and operational budgets. His one-time capital budget proposals include:
• $2 million property tax rebate,
• additional $1 million for economic development infrastructure
• $3 million toward the technology fund for schools, the community college and libraries.
Howard's operating budget proposals include:
• $100,000 per year to fund Sunday hours for the Westminster and Eldersburg branches of the Carroll County Public Library.
• $150,000 to fund a full-time veterans service officer to help veterans access the benefits to which they are entitled.
"Whatever your opinions are on the budget, please make them known, because the implications are great," Shoemaker said.