While changes might be coming to the formula the state uses to determine education funding, those changes are still years away and very likely might not have a major effect on Carroll County's school system, a state representative told the county's Combined Education Committee on Wednesday.
"One person's flaw is another person's formula," Rachel Hise, principal policy analyst with the state Department of Legislative Services, told the committee in a presentation on state funding for education. While Carroll County's relative wealth and declining enrollment mean it is losing state school funding, there are other counties for which the formula has worked well, Hise said.
Hise and fellow DLS analyst Scott Gates provided the committee with an overview of the Thornton Funding Formula, the blueprint the state uses to determine how much state money goes to each school system in the state. Hise and Gates also offered comparisons of Carroll to other counties around the state on funding and summarized the work being done at the state level to look at school funding.
Carroll County faces a school funding problem as declining enrollment, coupled with the county's relative wealth, combine to mean the county receives less money from the state formula each year. The Combined Education Committee was developed during the county's budget process as a way for officials and members of the community to look together at the funding future of the school system. The committee serves an advisory role and does not have any legislative authority.
In its current form, the Thornton Formula takes multiple factors into account in determining the wealth of a county, Hise told the committee on Wednesday. Those factors are the sum net taxable income in the county, 40 percent of the assessed value of residential property, 100 percent of the value of any public utilities property and 50 percent of assessed value of personal property, Hise said. That number is then divided by the number of students in the county, she said.
The formula was developed with a goal of ensuring that state and local governments share the burden of school funding about equally, with federal monies helping as well. But for some of the wealthier counties, the local contribution is higher, while in some less wealthy areas, the state funding is more than 50 percent, she said.
State funding accounts for 44.3 percent of CCPS's funding, CCPS Superintendent Stephen Guthrie said in a Combined Education Committee meeting in August, and 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. In per-pupil spending, Guthrie also said in the meeting, the school system's $13,566 in FY16 ranked No. 17.
Commissioner Doug Howard, R-District 5, who serves on the committee, criticized the formula for treating students as a variable cost, tying funding directly to the number of students in a system.
"You have to put a certain amount of administration in a building just to have a school," he said, noting that the loss of five or so students does not save the school much, if any, money, but it results in a decrease in the amount of money given to the county by the state.
But Hise said the per-pupil funding mechanism from the state is not likely to change. The weight the various factors are given in determining a county's wealth could, however, she said.
Later this month, Hise said, consultants hired by the state will provide a preliminary report to the state on school funding adequacy. Between that time and the October due date of the final report, a Stakeholder Advisory Group will meet to provide the consultants with input, comments and context, she said. On Sept. 29, the Maryland Commission on Innovation and Excellence in Education will hold its first meeting to review the findings of the consultants' study.
That group, which was formed to look at state funding of education, will provide the state with an initial report by the end of the year, she said.
Recommendations could include ideas such as reworking the weight each wealth factor is given in the calculation, or implementing rolling averages for counties facing increasing or decreasing enrollment in an effort to help buffer counties from the funding effects of large year-over-year enrollment changes, Hise said.
Chris Hartlove, chief financial officer for CCPS, who sits on the stakeholder group, warned the group that the changes that are being looked at will likely not offer Carroll County much relief.
"None of these things being discussed have a lot of upside for Carroll," Hartlove said, adding that the rolling average will most benefit counties that see sudden, drastic spikes or drops in enrollment, unlike Carroll's steady decline.
Hise countered that the recommendations that come from the consultant report are not the end of the road. The state commission can make recommendations beyond what is mentioned in the report, she said.
But even if the news from the commission is good, legislation on the formula likely would not come until the 2018 General Assembly session, Hise said.
Del. Susan Krebs, R-District 5, who sits on the county committee, said she doubted the county would see any real change in state funding without a decision by the state to significantly grow the pool of funds dispersed among school systems.
"Maybe we can fix some of [the formula], but I don't think it's going to be a massive piece," she said.
With a goal of developing advice to offer to the county and CCPS by the end of October, some committee members said they wanted to start looking at other ways to approach the problem.
"It's like trying to get water out of a turnip right now. I don't know how you're going to do it," committee member and parent Michele Rogers said.
Krebs recommended looking at health care costs in the school system. Glen Galante — UniServ director for the state teachers union, Maryland State Education Association, in Carroll County — said he will provide the group with information at its next meeting on compensation and the step system teacher pay adheres to. Rogers said she wanted the group to look into different ways of delivering education and what kind of funding is tied to any specific curriculum.
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Commissioner Richard Weaver, R-District 4, asked whether the committee could look at potentially saving the school system money by sending some special programs, like Gateway School and Crossroads Middle, back to devoted classrooms in other schools rather than keeping the buildings open, an idea some committee members pushed back against.
"I don't want it to be lost that it is not the school system's job to fix this problem alone," county school board member Devon Rothschild said.
Guthrie suggested the group create a brainstorming chart where committee members can offer their own ideas on how to close the gap on school funding. From there, ideas could be vetted by the group.
The Combined Education Committee will hold its next meeting at 4 p.m. Sept. 21 at the County Office Building, 225 N. Center St. in Westminster.