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Education committee takes hard look at enrollments, budgets

The Combined Education Committee looked at reality as shown by the numbers when it met for the third time Wednesday to hear presentations on school enrollment and budget data.

The committee was developed during the county's budget process as a way for community members and officials to look together at funding problems that the school system faces in future years, with the goal of developing possible solutions. It serves an advisory role and does not have any legislative authority.

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On the committee are school board members Bob Lord and Devon Rothschild; Commissioners Richard Weaver, R-District 2, and Doug Howard, R-District 5; Glen Galante, from the Maryland State Education Association and Carroll County Education Association; local real estate agent and Planning and Zoning Commission member Daniel Hoff; Carroll County Public Schools parent Michele Rogers; and a rotation of representatives from the county's delegation in Annapolis. Westminster-based financial adviser Steven Aquino also joined the group on Wednesday as a representative from the business community. A member of the public without a connection to the school system may also join the committee at a future meeting.

Superintendent Stephen Guthrie on Wednesday laid out for the committee a series of comparisons involving the school system in Carroll County and those of other nearby or similar jurisdictions.

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With the closure of three county schools at the end of the 2015-16 school year, the school system has a total of 37 schools — 22 elementary, eight middle and seven high. The system also operates other schools, such as the Career and Tech Center, Outdoor School and Gateway/Crossroads Middle School.

The county's Combined Education Committee will begin discussions on county and school system funding as early as next month.

In 2014, Guthrie said, Carroll elementary schools were at 82 percent capacity, middle schools were at 86 percent and high schools were at 79 percent. With the recent school closures, he said, elementary schools are at 84 percent capacity, middle schools are at 91 percent and high schools are at 88 percent.

Compared to Baltimore, Howard, Frederick, Harford, Charles, Washington, St. Mary's and Calvert counties, CCPS' $329.8 million budget ranks near the bottom of the middle, he said.

While the average state funding of county school systems covers 48.5 percent of the system's costs, state funding accounts for 44.3 percent of CCPS' funding, Guthrie said.

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The county's funding for the school system — 52.5 percent of the county's fiscal year 2016 budget — ranks it ninth in the state, Guthrie said.

In per-pupil spending, Guthrie noted, the school system's $13,566 in FY16 ranked No. 17, more than Frederick County's $13,369 and Harford County's $13,236 but less than places like Calvert County, where the system spends $13,905 per student, and Baltimore County, where that figure is $14,312.

Much of the system's funding problem relates to the state's school funding formula. The county ranks No. 11 in the state in per-pupil wealth, Guthrie said, but has been facing steadily declining enrollment, two factors that, combined, equate to early decreases in state funds.

While Carroll, Harford and Calvert counties are all facing shrinking enrollment, the decline in student population in Carroll has been both the most severe and the longest-lasting.

While the system employs more teachers per student than many other systems in the state, it lacks many of the instructional support staff that other systems have, Guthrie said.

It also falls behind in teacher salary, he said.

In order to offer competitive salaries to school staff, Guthrie told the committee that the system needs an annual increase of $12 million, something that county Budget Director Ted Zaleski showed staff is easier said than funded.

The county has faced many of the same revenue problems the school system has faced, Zaleski said in his presentation to the committee.

The state used to fund about 15 percent of the county's budget, Zaleski said. Now, it provides for about a half a percent, he said. While the county has seen highway user revenue disappear, it has also been saddled with the burden of funding things like teacher pensions and environmental requirements, he said.

In 2010, he said, the county cut about 100 positions.

Now, revenues are increasing, but not by as much as the county would like.

During the recession, the county experienced an unprecedented five years of drops in property assessments, Zaleski said.

Property taxes, which account for more than half of all county revenues, have been rebounding even slower than had been expected, and the role of income taxes, a more volatile revenue source, has grown, Zaleski said.

Even with the rebound and growth the county is beginning to experience, it is not enough to match the projected needs of the school system, he said.

While the county is looking at growth of about 3 percent in property tax revenue within a few years, he said the school system, which accounts for about half of the county's expenditures, is asking for growth of more than double that.

"Just mathematically, it's hard to see where do you bring those new things together," he said.

Committee member Hoff, who sits on the Planning and Zoning Commission, told the committee they should not expect to solve the problem by looking only at development.

"If you're sitting here at the table and looking for growth to save you, that's not going to happen," he said. The county is heavily restricted by state regulations related to water and sewer, he said. Also, he added, growth is far from a quick fix.

"Even if you magically set the stage today," benefits wouldn't be seen for years, he said.

Del. Susan Krebs, R-District 5, told the committee that the county's problems could be worse. The county does not, she said, face hefty costs related to school security or English-as-a-second-language classes for students.

"You've got to consider that we are very fortunate," compared to other systems, she said.

Howard asked Guthrie to provide information to the committee on how other school systems in the state spend their money. Carroll school spending is comparable to other counties that pay their employees more, he said.

"How are they doing it?" he asked. "Where is the differential?"

A representative from the state will meet with the committee in September to discuss state funding.

The committee also approved a letter to be sent from the Board of County Commissioners, the Board of Education and the delegation to Gov. Larry Hogan thanking him for $4 million in stopgap funds provided in the state's fiscal year 2017 budget to help the school system.

The letter urges the governor to consider again sending the school system stopgap funds in the next state budget.

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