In the last weeks of creating the budget for the 2020 fiscal year, the Carroll County commissioners voted to smooth out the growth rate for their allotments to Carroll County Public Schools (CCPS) over the next five years. With this, the commissioners said they expected the school system to start projecting their budgets out years ahead.
At a work session Wednesday, Nov. 13, members of the school board seemed happy to do so. Fewer fluctuations in their funding from the county will give them a better idea of the money left over for strategic projects, board members said.
CCPS staff presented a draft of the five-plus-one year budget at the work session. The group also discussed ways they could spend remaining fund balance. Possibilities included new positions in school security, health and substance abuse prevention; support for pre-kindergarten programs; and virtual learning technology.
Christopher Hartlove, chief financial officer for CCPS, said “Because of the commissioners committing to that plan, which is very helpful to us, we’ll be able to map out where we think we’ll be. I think what comes out of this is that this plan allows us to operate our school system, and actually have some dollars left at the quote “bottom line” to address some strategic initiatives going forward.”
“We’ll need every penny of those dollars that we get. ... But it’s a good plan that allows for us to start to do something that we haven’t done for a number of years, and that’s to try to improve the system.”
The Board was particularly interested in a projected bump in state funding due to an increase Carroll schools’ enrollment. After dropping or staying stagnant for years, enrollment numbers for CCPS look to be on the rise.
Based on the preliminary count for this school year done Sept. 30, the system is up by 140 students. This is the largest increase since 2006, Superintendent Steve Lockard said.
They don’t know exactly where the increase in coming from, whether families moving in to the county or the result of a higher birth rate in Carroll residents, but signs point to the increase coming in at the elementary school level, Hartlove said.
General operating expenditures mostly refers to employees salaries, supplies, materials, hourly substitutes and nonpublic placement costs for students, Hartlove said. A 3% growth rate is projected through FY25 in that category.
Salaries are determined through negotiations with employee unions, and Hartlove emphasized that those percentages are generalized assumptions. Employee and retiree health costs were both set at 4.5% assumed growth rate
The school system has locked electrical and natural gas rates for several years going forward and expects no growth in that category.
Looking at the school system’s fund balance, CCPS is approaching the cap for what it can have in reserves, putting about 1% of the operating budget into reserves each year. Staff looked at ways they could spend some of the reserve to meet strategic goals.
The most recent uses of the fund balance have been for vehicle replacement and employee bonuses.
Lockard said CCPS is looking to their community town halls for some of the guidance for where to prioritize funds. The last of a set of three town halls is planned for Monday, Dec. 9 at 7 p.m. in the media center at South Carroll High School.
Three potential uses for reserve funds are new positions in CCPS: a coordinator of health services, a coordinator of school security and a teacher specialist in substance abuse prevention.
Though reserve funds are not meant to be used for reoccurring annual expenses, CCPS is considering a two-year trial for these roles before potentially incorporating them into ongoing yearly expenses.
A coordinator of School Security to share the workload of Supervisor of the School Security and Emergency Management Duane Williams, who Lockard said is essentially on call at all hours, was also brought up. A new position could assist with carrying out the statewide Safe to Learn Act. It’s most visible result was the addition of Sheriff’s Office deputies as school resource officers in schools, but it has other “layers” Lockard said, which include training staff across the system and the annual submission of school security plans.
Similarly, the coordinator of Health Services could help what is essentially one person overseeing all of the nursing staff for the system, Chief of Schools Cindy McCabe said. The person’s duties would include training and interfacing with school nurses regularly.
Said Lockard: “It translates right to our classrooms too, because the health mandates that we’re responsible for are growing, and so that puts a lot on a classroom teacher and school-based folks.”
The teacher specialist in substance abuse prevention would be envisioned as “true boots on the ground,” said Chief of Academics, Equity and Accountability Jason Anderson. That person would help be a conduit between the classrooms and the state’s best practices and lesson content for substance abuse prevention as well as a conduit between the classroom and CCPS agency partners like the Carroll County health Department.
If the positions are added, Board President Donna Sivigny said she would like to see evaluation after two years whether the positions had brought the intended results to the school system.
The virtual learning program is something the school system is looking at to allow students to take classes that aren’t offered at their schools. This will most benefit smaller schools, Board Member Tara Battaglia said. A pilot is planned for next school year, but its still undetermined what the scale of that will be.
In order to use their fund balance, the school system will have to get approval from the county commissioners. Commissioner Richard Weaver, R-District 2, who serves as the ex officio member on the Board, said these projects seemed in line with the commissioners’ priorities, but he couldn’t speak definitively or for his fellow board members.
The budget plan will be discussed again at the joint meeting between the school board and the commissioners planned for Dec. 12. Lockard will present his proposed operating budget to the commissioners on Jan. 8, 2020, though precedent has shown that this budget goes through many revisions before approval in May.