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Rothschild: School funding in 'groundhog day' cycle

It's budget season, and education funding remains a serious challenge to our taxpayers. We are caught in a repetitious "groundhog day" cycle. Each year, enrollments decline, so state funding declines. Then, to make matters worse, declining enrollments artificially inflate our average wealth-per-student calculation, which in turn results in yet lower appropriations from the state.

Prior Boards of Education have known about this funding dilemma for nearly a decade, but never addressed it. To his credit, Superintendent Stephen Guthrie has tried to manage within his budget by achieving operating efficiencies in everything from purchasing to transportation to food service. However, the scope of the challenge can no longer be managed at the fringe, and requires leadership from the Board of Education in order to properly complete the restructuring of our school system to ensure scarce tax dollars are focused on teacher salaries rather than excess capacity.

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Politically incorrect observations: Reduced state funding is exacerbated by external factors: We recently learned Baltimore City inflated its enrollments and received $30 million more in state aid than they were entitled to. Next, there are jurisdictions that declare themselves, "sanctuaries for illegal immigration." Their growing illegal populations require millions of dollars in state aid that gets diverted away from children of legal citizens. There's no free lunch, and you pay the price for bad actors. Annapolis should tell sanctuary counties to fund education of illegal aliens out of their own pockets … not ours.

Now, let's set the record straight on salaries.

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Are our teacher salaries low? Yes.

Our average salaries compared to select surrounding counties run anywhere from $3,000 to $5,000 below the norm. There are exceptions. Howard County pays about $12,000 more that Carroll. However, Howard is the second-richest county in the United States, with household income $30,000 higher than Carroll's. We cannot catch them.

Nonetheless, I am troubled by apocryphal claims of activists that claim our teachers have received "no increases" in five years. That is absolutely false.

Let's count some blessings:

In 2013, most teachers received a permanent STEP increase of about 2.5 percent;

In 2014, teachers received a bonus equal to 2.5 percent of total base salary;

In 2015, teachers received a bonus equal to 3.0 percent of total base salary;

In 2016, teachers receive a permanent Cost-of-Living-Adjustment of 2.5 percent plus a 1 percent bonus;

In 2013, county taxpayers also began permanently subsidizing underfunded teacher pensions by an amount that now exceeds $6 million dollars a year. Unfortunately, this doesn't boost current paychecks.

Cumulative county dollars diverted to incremental education compensation and pensions for the past four years exceeds $50 million. Clearly, claims of, "no increases" are disingenuous.

Additionally, teachers receive compensation adders when they are promoted or take on extra duties such as department head. The school system similarly does not define any of these compensation adders as an "increase."

Regardless, I believe teacher salaries should be nudged upward to remain competitive with counties such as Frederick and Baltimore. However, CCPS has more work to do. They submitted a five-year budget proposal to the commissioners that I can only characterize as, "totally impossible." Enrollments will decline, and the board wants an additional $60 million-plus from the commissioners.

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Counterpoint: Contrary to popular belief, CCPS's central office staff expenditures and aid expenditures are fairly low. However, our cost of classroom teachers is slightly high. Paradoxically, several counties spend fewer instructional dollars per student on teachers, but pay higher salaries than Carroll.

How can this be?

I'm not sure, but one possible answer may be student/teacher ratios. Carroll's ratios are better now than eight years ago. We have 13.87 students per teacher compared to several higher salaried counties with ratios in the range of 14 to 15 students per teacher. Unfortunately, I believe CCPS will have to perform a comprehensive redistricting with the intention of achieving efficiencies to trim ratios closer to the state average of 14.63 students per teacher. This would free-up $6 million dollars for salary increases.

I want our teachers to be content. But I also believe most, if not all, commissioners want to protect the taxpayers from increased tax rates. Tax increases can be avoided if we work together to make the additional difficult decisions that must be made.

Richard Rothschild is a county commissioner representing District 4.

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