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Carroll school system continues to make case for county funding amid $1 million shortfall

Carroll school system continues to make case for county funding amid $1 million shortfall
Board members view a breakdown of full-time employee positions reductions during presentation on the budget during a May 15, 2019, work session. (Catalina Righter/Carroll County Times)

As deadlines to finalize budgets creep closer, the Board of Education and the Board of County Commissioners remain locked in negotiations that center on a $1 million shortfall.

The school board gave an update at a work session Wednesday. At the previous joint meeting between the two boards, the commissioners tasked the school system with preparing a report of what it will cut if the county cannot fund the $1 million shortfall in their budget.

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It’s a tough decision for the commissioners, Richard Weaver, R-District 2, said Wednesday. If they fund the school system, other county services will suffer cuts, or vice versa. The commissioners' deadline to approve a budget is May 30.

This year’s budget is challenged by the fact that revenues increased about 2% less than expected.

The school system is seeing pressure from another direction as well, as teachers urge them to give meaningful raises, after years of going without, and to hire support positions for teachers who feel like they are being overwhelmed.

At Wednesday’s presentation, Superintendent Steve Lockard said that the $1 million shortage is what will be needed to meet anticipated negotiations with employees. In the budget presentation, which ran for about half an hour during the meeting, the school system made the case that staff and programs had already been cut previously to a degree they felt they could not continue.

Lockard asked central office staff to prepare a report on the history of budget reduction between fiscal years 2010 and 2019.

Jon O'Neal, assistant superintendent of administration, and Christopher Hartlove, chief financial officer, led the presentation of the findings.

Over those years, reductions totaled $38.5 million. This breaks down into cuts to 375.7 full-time employee positions, for $25 million, and $10.8 million in other reductions.

“As a new superintendent, it’s kind of overwhelming to think of the impacts such reductions have had,” Lockard said.

Lockard said people often tell the school system to cut non-teacher positions in order to trim down a budget. But, he said, they have already been doing that.

A slide shows CCPS positions reduced from Fy10 to FY19
A slide shows CCPS positions reduced from Fy10 to FY19 (Courtesy / Carroll County Public Schools)

According to Maryland State Department of Education numbers, Carroll County now ranks No. 22 out of 24 jurisdictions in student-to-noninstructional-staff ratio, and No. 23 in students-to-other-instructional-personnel ratio.

The largest category for full-time equivalent cuts was teachers, with 206, but according to the presentation, this was mostly commensurate with student enrollment declining.

“I know it’s an easy thing to say let’s just cut the people who aren’t in our classroom. … We’re actually hurting the people that we’re trying to help,” Lockard said.

School board member Kenneth Kiler said the school system needed to look at adding more positions next year.

The school system’s proposed budget, first presented in February, included 29 new positions, but the school system has since removed that request for this year’s budget. If the positions were included, the shortfall would have been several million more, the school board said in previous meetings with the county commissioners.

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The presentation also discussed the fund balance, or the money left in the school district’s maintenance account at the end of the year. It is the only reserve for contingencies the school system has, O’Neal said.

After last year’s audit, the balance was 3.4% of the schools budget, or $11.2 million. It cannot rise above 5%, according to a memorandum of understanding with the county commissioners, but it has not approached that cap in recent memory, Hartlove said.

Although others often urge the school system to dip into this pool to bridge budget gaps, the school system presenters argued that would be against both CCPS policy and financial best practices for governmental agencies.

A slide shows the CCPS policy for maintaining a fund balance.
A slide shows the CCPS policy for maintaining a fund balance. (Courtesy Photo / Carroll County Public Schools)

The fund balance can be used for one-time expenses, but trouble can come when it is used to cover recurring expenses, Hartlove said.

Board of Education President Donna Sivigny said that next year she hopes the boards can continue communicating and they start the budget discussions “early and often.”

“We seem to start out in a hole every year … we’ve got to get out of that cycle,” she said.

After the presentation, Commissioner Richard Weaver, R-District 2, who attended the meeting, said he recognized the tough situation the school system was in and understood why they had applied for the funding. But he repeated the sentiment from the last joint meeting — if the commissioners fulfill the school system’s request it will mean cutting services elsewhere in the county.

“We’re going to be faced with some tough decisions here in the next couple days,” he said.

Also at Wednesday’s meeting, separate presentations were made on the design development of the Carroll County Career and Tech Center, a feasibility study on East Middle School, and an update of the school system’s Facilities Master Plan.

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