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Carroll County school board reckons with uncertain budget picture in special meeting

The Carroll County Board of Education is meeting more frequently than its usual once-a-month schedule since the start of the coronavirus pandemic and at the BOE’s second special meeting of April, on Monday, discussion included next year’s budget, the school calendar and Freedom Elementary redistricting.

Carroll County Public Schools Chief of Operations Jonathan O’Neal said central office staff are analyzing Gov. Hogan’s plan for reopening society in Maryland and a team is planning how the school system will fit into each phase of that.

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This team is tasked with bringing guidelines to the superintendent regarding how their operations might look different at each stage of reopening, and if there are any supplies the school system will need to purchase. The meeting video is archived on the “CCPS Media” Youtube page and runs just over two hours.

Budget

What started off as a hopeful budget process for CCPS now faces uncertainty.

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The school board had planned to meet for a budget work session May 6, but agreed on Monday to push that back until May 13 at noon. Prior to that, the board will meet with the county commissioners on May 12 at 2 p.m. The county funds a large portion of the school system’s budget.

The plan is to vote on a budget draft to send to the county at the regularly scheduled BOE meeting, May 13 at 5 p.m. But that vote can be pushed back to another meeting before the end of May if it is decided more time is needed.

After the county revised its proposed budget in light of the coronavirus-impacted economy, the school system appears to be looking at about $5 million less than expected only a few months ago.

The county proposed to fund the school system at “maintenance of effort." This means they are providing the same funding per pupil as the previous year, rather than the previously planned 3.13% increase.

O’Neal also reported on the system’s fund balance, which is approaching the cap for how much the school system can legally keep in reserve. Before the pandemic, the school system had been considering using some to fund the first three years’ salary for three new positions related to school safety and student mental health. In most cases, fund balance is to be used on one-time costs rather than ongoing financial obligations.

O’Neal said staff could still consider funding these positions while having a “very healthy” amount of reserve left over. They know this funding will come into play for the “learning recovery” once schools are reopened to in-person learning.

This might come in the form of voluntary summer classes or fall catchup sessions after school or on Saturdays. For some special education students there will be additional compensatory services to make up for parts of their learning plans that have to be done face-to-face.

Other uses of the fund balance that staff is proposing to the board include some smaller building maintenance projects; school security projects like updating or replacing older security cameras; and technology purchases such as more devices for students.

There have been some savings in utilities and bus fuel this year because the school buildings have been shut down for more than a month, save for some activities like meal delivery. CCPS also looks to receive about $2 million from federal CARES funding as a one-time payment for pandemic relief.

Board President Donna Sivigny said she expected the fund balance conversation at the work session to be “robust.”

Calendar

At the next formal board meeting, on May 13, Superintendent Steve Lockard will bring two calendar waivers to be voted on.

One would ask the state to waive the first five days of closures that began March 16. State Superintendent Karen Salmon is authorized to waive those for school districts across the state, similar to what might happen with weather-related closings. The board will also vote on a waiver of primary election day (June 2) as a school system holiday because the elections will not impact school system facilities.

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If both of these waivers go through, the final day of the school year for students would be June 11. It would have been June 12 previously.

Freedom redistricting

The board agreed to pause the work of the Freedom Elementary Redistricting Committee. The group’s task is to present options for the overcrowding at the school, which is a hindrance to some development in the area because of county government regulations.

The committee was scheduled to present a final report in June, but, like other system committees, the redistricting committee has not been able to meet since early March. O’Neal said the June timeline was not realistic "even if we could start tomorrow.”

He shared reasons CCPS staff and committee members believe a pause makes sense, saying they believe the remaining work doesn’t work well in a virtual meeting and that the discussions require members to be referencing multiple sources and interactive projections at once that don’t work well flattened down to a computer screen. Plus, robust discussion and debate is more difficult in a video meeting.

They also feel that when the committee delivers its report, “there has to be the opportunity for a true public hearing and vetting process,” O’Neal said, citing previous experience. “This is typically the kind of work and the kind of report that elicits strong community emotion, wither for or against a certain concept.” They would want to present the report when the public could attend meetings in person.

Reasons O’Neal shared also included the possibility that committee members home lives and obligations had changed significantly since the start of the pandemic. He also wondered whether there would be an impact on the school’s enrollment numbers because of families making different choices about job changes and home purchases. He said this was a “feeling” and not supported by data.

The board members agreed to pause the committee’s work.

“I don’t want us to use the current situation as an excuse to put off difficult discussions, but I don’t think that’s what we’re doing at all," Sivigny said. "I think we’re being realistic about the situation at hand.”

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