By Stephanie Lipcius Palko
The message School Superintendent Dr. D’Ette Devine and her staff sent to the Cecil County Council this week was clearly stated – that the public school system has been underfunded for a number of years and that to make any further cuts to the school budgets that have been approved by County Executive Alan McCarthy would compromise the educational system, both on the instructional level and in the area of school building maintenance.
The school system budget was discussed on Tuesday evening. This night time budget session was one of three evening budget sessions planned by the County Council.
The County Council is in their budget review process to determine if they believe money should be cut from the County Executive’s proposed budget.
McCarthy has proposed a budget that includes a slight increase in the county tax rate and income tax rate to generate an extra $5 million in funding. Stressing that recent county budgets have very lean, McCarthy has said the additional funding is needed to maintain the current levels of county services while maintaining a balanced budget. In recent years, the county has relied on drawing down reserve fund money. McCarthy has said the rainy day fund money can no longer be used to balance the county’s operating budget.
Dr. McCarthy’s proposed budget for the school system cut the school board’s requested budget by $2.2 million, which would allow the school system to operate with a budget of just under $200 million, of which a major percentage would come from the state.
To justify the levels of funding for the operations budget, school officials spoke of the student population and the programs that have been successful in improving student achievement.
Cecil County has 15,664 students, approximately 1,200 youngsters at each grade level. There are challenges among those in the student population. About 45% of the county students qualify for free and reduced meals. Special education services are required for 15% of the students. The number of students with autism has increased 1.7 times during the past ten years. Homeless students number 845 and 253 students need to learn English. Among the non-English speaking students are 20 different languages.
Those are the basic challenges surrounding the student population, school officials told the County Council.
There are other challenges, school officials said.
The school system continues to work on improving the graduation rate. Cecil County now boasts a graduation rate of 90%. In 2009, the graduation rate was 77%. School administration told the County Council that a concentrated program of identifying at-risk students at a younger age has resulted in this improvement in graduation levels, explained Jeffrey Lawson, Associate Superintendent.
“You can see the effect it has on the community,” Lawson said, of the graduation rate.
Officials said studies have shown that people who drop out of school have a higher rate of drug use, criminal activity, welfare dependence, divorce rates and a higher chance that their children will tend to not finish school, as well.
It was also noted that getting children to finish their education helps the county’s economy by getting more of the population job-ready.
Innovative programs adopted by the school system have increased the reading and math levels of students. As each program was explained, the information included the modest price tags for each program as well as the positive results of the initiatives.
Focusing on student performance is important because required tests for graduation continue to become more rigorous, school officials explained.
The new school of technology is growing with most of the students, 81%, gaining certifications in their courses of student that make them job-ready.
Students bound for college have also gotten a boost. With about 22 % to 24% of Cecil County’s population with bachelor’s degrees, Lawson said that if that number is increased to 30% or more, the economic benefit to the county would improve. More students are taking honors and Advanced Placement courses. Additionally, more seniors are taking classes at Cecil College.
It was noted that even when students do not test as well as they hoped on Advanced Placement tests, their participation in college level courses makes them more successful when they attend college after their high school graduation.
Technology needs continue to be a challenge, school officials said.
“Technology is the moving target,” Superintendent Devine said, noting how technology continually changes, meaning equipment and software needs to be frequently updated.
The technology includes security equipment. Associate Superintendent Carolyn Teigland said it appears that the schools will still need to defer the plan to replace the ten-year-old security cameras at the county’s five high schools.
“We cannot do it,” she said, noting the one million dollar cost for the replacement. The schools also wish there were funds to add cameras to more schools.
The top cost within the school system is personnel which represents 84% of the operating budget.
The school administrators showed the County Council a chart that illustrated that while starting salaries for teachers in Cecil County are competitive, the county’s compensation levels drop, when compared with nearby locales, as teachers continue their career.
Overall, the school system has a turn-over rate of 10%. Most leave during their first five years of teaching, the superintendent reported, noting that it is as though Cecil County is a training ground for teachers who want to get a job in Pennsylvania. After the first five years, if a teacher remains in Cecil County, they usually want to stay in the district since they are getting vested in their retirement programs.
School system Chief Financial Officer Tom Kappra noted that most teachers work and live in Cecil County. Among county residents, 50% of all workers leave the county to find a job. Among teachers living in the county, 70% work in Cecil County schools.
Healthcare costs have been an issue among county workers and the County Council was curious about how the school system has handled their costs. Kappra said school system costs have remained flat with teachers and staff able to select from among coverage options and being asked to cover cost increases. The school system has also dropped coverage for spouses who are able to get insurance at their own places of employment.
The Affordable Healthcare Act, usually referred to as Obamacare, has proven to be beneficial for teachers who retire before they are old enough for Medicare. Previously, this group of younger retirees had been a financial burden for the school system. With the Obamacare exchange in Maryland, Kappra said the school system provides healthcare stipends and he reported that this age group of retirees has been pleased with the plans they can obtain and the costs of coverage.
“Some are finding they have money left over,” Kappra told the Council.
After the formal budget review, some school officials and County Council members spoke briefly of how all healthcare coverage for county workers should be combined into one program.
School officials discussed per pupil funding and state calculations and how expenditure per student funding compares with other state school systems. In Cecil County, just more than $14,000 per year is spend on each student. The state average is $15,268. The lowest per student level of funding is Frederick County at $12,439, while Worcester County spends the most per student at $17,971.
Maintaining school facilities is another budget consideration. School officials said that with 30 school buildings, they should really be doing significant projects on two school buildings a year. Since the economic downturn, there is very little work being done. The previous County Executive, Tari Moore, had supported doing a significant project at a school every other year.
Under the County Executive’s proposed budget, about $5.4 million is dedicated to school maintenance costs. The schools had asked for about $15 million. School officials told the County Council that about $9 million to $10 million a year is needed to be able to keep up with the needs of the school buildings.
School officials also lamented that planned construction for Chesapeake City Elementary School, Kenmore Elementary and North East Middle have all been pushed further into the future.
County Council members remembered how previous public budget hearings have brought parents who complain about toilets that don’t work and roofs that leak in schools.
County Council President Joyce Bowlsbey said it is frustrating because it is not the County Council that makes the decisions on where to spend the money. She said the county gives a lump sum to the schools and they are the ones who decide on the spending.
Superintendent Devine said that “lump sum” the county has been allocating to the schools has not been enough money to address all of the priority school maintenance needs.
The next budget deliberation meeting is set for Tuesday, April 18, beginning at 1:30 in the County Administration Building. Various budget requests will be reviewed throughout the afternoon.