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Commissioners fund $1M school system request without taking from other areas of budget

As the days tick down until the county’s budget is officially adopted at 11 a.m. Tuesday, May 28, Carroll’s Board of County Commissioners made sure to “dot the I’s and cross the T’s” at a final work session Thursday afternoon.

The topic of discussion that took up the most time was the $1 million request made by Carroll County Public Schools, asking for it to supplement a shortfall they anticipate in their budget.

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At the conclusion of more than an hour of discussion, the commissioners moved to accept an option that was intended to find the funding the school system requested while encouraging them toward longer-term budget planning.

The county plans on a five-plus-1-year schedule. Within this planning, they anticipate funding that will be allotted to major county agencies like the school system.

After back-and-forth between the commissioners and Superintendent of Schools Steve Lockard, Commissioner Stephen Wantz, R-District 1, proposed that the county look to a future year where the allotment for CCPS is expected to be larger and slide the funding from that year down to the FY20 budget.

After conferring with Director of Management and Budget Ted Zaleski, the commissioners proposed to “smooth” the figures over the next five years. This will keep constant growth rates.

The rough number for the growth rate they found was 3.1%, but the calculations would take a day to be finished, Zaleski said.

This will allow the school system to have the $1 million they asked for for FY20 without taking from other areas of the county budget. Lockard said this funding was needed in order to fulfill the anticipated negotiations with their five staff unions.

Motions that the commissioners did not pass included moving the $1 million from Agriculture Preservation and eliminating three county staff positions.

A point of much discussion for the school system was making sure they would be able to fund at least a 3% raise for teachers. Under the newly passed “Blueprint for Maryland’s Future,” referred to by many as the Kirwan Commision bill, the state will pitch in an additional 1.5% boost to teacher raises if counties can certify at least a 3% raise, for a total of 4.5%.

As part of the agreement to smooth the growth rate, Wantz felt firmly that the the school system needed to start budgeting years out in advance.

“Y’all have got to step up. You have got to start looking at the budget the way we do,” he said.

Going forward, he said, this should not only be better for the school system in their planning, but will lead to more accountability.

Following the meeting, Laockard said he was “more than pleased” with the result.

He thanked the commissioners for taking the time to work through discussions with the school system. The commissioners’ decision not only, “meets budget need this year, but also gives us a stable forecast over the next five years that we can really plan and build around,” Lockard said.

Following the work session, Commissioner Ed Rothstein, R-District 5, also said that he was satisfied with the result. He said the bottom line was that they had made sure teachers were getting the 3% raise that would allow the state matching to kick in.

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He added that he will be interested to see the results of raise negotiations when they are made public during future BOE meetings to see whether teachers’ raises are at 3% or come out higher than that with the additional $1 million.

During the work session, Lockard said that as an advocate for the school system, he hoped they could do even better than that.

Rothstein felt that the 4.5% raise was “the right trajectory” for compensating teachers.

Going forward he wants to see the quarterly joint meetings between the Board of County Commissioners and the Board of Education continue so that the commissioners will have “a better understanding of what their critical needs are sooner rather than later” when working on the next year’s budget.

As the commissioners talked about final business, Wantz raised concerns about Carroll’s unassigned fund balance compared to other counties.

“You’ve got to have something in the coffers in case something happens,” he said.

Zaleski siad that the unassigned fund balance is not the sole form of reserves that the county has, but others like the stabilization fund have very specific terms needed to access. The unassigned fund balance is where the county goes for unexpected emergencies like a building collapse and also what they can draw from to fund previously unplanned capital projects.

After the work session, Wantz said he wants to see the county focus more on building a reserve in the coming years’ budget planning.

Overall, this year meant some “incredibly tough decisions.” Of the five budgets he’s been a part of, he said FY20 was the most challenging, but he was happy that they were able to keep the tax rate the same. Going forward, especially with future Kirwan funding asks still unknown, “it’s incredibly important for all of us to live within our means,” he said.

“We’ve got to hold the line,” he said. “I think we’re in a good place right now.”

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