Superintendent Terry Alban wants to boost the Frederick County Public Schools budget for next year by roughly $24 million over the current fiscal year — to a total $568 million — though early revenue projections indicate this will be difficult.
The superintendent unveiled the first draft of her fiscal 2017 operating budget Wednesday night at West Frederick Middle School. This budget must still be vetted and approved by the school board, and school officials must wait and see how much funding the county and state will commit.
Alban’s recommended budget of $568 million reflects the optimal needs of the school district, which for years has been deprived of proper funding, Alban said, having been financed by only the minimum funding amount required by law, known as “maintenance of effort.”
But the school system estimates that it will pull in only $544 million or so in combined revenue from the county and state, leading to a $24 million shortfall.
This estimate isn’t precise, though, as Alban pegged the county’s portion of the funding at $247 million — the amount required by maintenance of effort. And County Executive Jan Gardner has already pledged additional funding to the school district beyond he $247 million.
The county payout to the school system last year was $250 million, but a slight downturn in enrollment in the public schools reduced the dollar amount required for the maintenance-of-effort level.
In a phone interview, Gardner said at this early stage of the budget process, she estimates that she needs $6 million over the maintenance-of-effort level to the school system, though she stressed that the number was not final.
The state’s assumed fiscal contribution of $268 million likely won’t change much, Alban said, as much of that is mandated by a formula.
Last year, schools across the county could have also received additional state money under the Geographic Cost of Education Index. GCEI is shorthand for funding that the governor has discretion to provide to those jurisdictions where the cost of education is higher. Frederick is among those counties.
The General Assembly had worked to fence off this funding from the governor’s intervention, but Republican Gov. Larry Hogan, elected in 2014, chose to withhold part of the GCEI funding. As a result, Frederick County lost out on more than $3 million for the current academic year. GCEI funding is now mandated through legislation passed by the General Assembly in 2015, should Hogan choose not to release the funding this fiscal year, an unlikely scenario.
Considering the state’s share and Gardner’s tentative funding commitment, the Frederick County Board of Education will likely need to make cuts in Alban’s proposed budget.
“It’s not going to be a pretty budget year,” Board of Education President Brad Young said in a phone interview.
In her remarks, Alban said maintenance of effort doesn’t account for inflation or new mandates that the school district must comply with, resulting in painful choices highlighted last budget cycle with the Board of Education upping class size by one student across the board. This changed the formula for how teachers are distributed to schools.
A total of 80 teaching positions were eliminated as part of that move, as well as one extra position cut because of the enrollment decrease.
Alban has budgeted for the return of a “quarter of a student,” which would mean nearly 20 new teaching positions. This would cost $1.3 million. Restoring classes to their original size would cost nearly $5 million, Alban said in her presentation.
She has also allocated funding to revive some of the programs that were lost in the school board cuts last budget cycle, such as trims to summer school. Alban added $204,000 annually for more summer school programs for 2016-17.
More than half of the $24 million in additional funding Alban included in her budget would be funneled to the salary resource pool, the pot of money from which the school district draws to pay teachers and negotiate with the unions.
Alban has budgeted $13.8 million into the salary resource pool for fiscal 2017, with the hope that the school district could negotiate with the union representatives a new salary scale that would remedy low starting salaries for beginning teachers here compared with other counties.
Many people in the school district have pointed to the district’s failure to provide scheduled annual raises for teachers and a middling starting salary as reasons for teachers leaving for other jurisdictions that pay more.
Salaries for support staff such as mechanics, bus drivers and instructional aides also need to be more competitive, Alban said.
“Our students deserve the very best people in these positions, just as they deserve the very best in our classrooms,” Alban said.
Melissa Dirks, president of the teachers union, the Frederick County Teachers Association, said she appreciated the concept of a new salary scale. A task force was formed four years ago to investigate transitioning to a new salary scale, but Dirks said funding the schools at the minimum maintenance-of-effort level skewered any chance of that coming to fruition.
Dirks said that Alban’s proposed budget was on track for where the school system needed to be.
“It’s been a ‘Race to the Bottom’ for Frederick County,” Dirks said, a tongue-in-cheek reference to the federal education program known as “Race to the Top.”
A new salary scale is not yet available, said school system spokesman Michael Doerrer, as details are still being worked out.
Young said his hope would be that this new salary scale would likely make funding a step increase for teachers on the scale more realistic. Roughly $10 million more is currently required to fund a step increase, Young said.
Young said he has little to criticize in this year’s budget, though he was disappointed that the addition to a pension trust fund, known as Other Post Employee Benefits, wasn’t higher than the budgeted $1 million.
He called this year’s contribution to OPEB woefully insufficient. OPEB is intended to cover retiree costs when the price of health care reaches heights that the operating budget can’t cover.
Young said he hopes that the lingering effects of the class size increase and other cuts will spur the public to advocate more at the local and state level for school funding. The school board has not developed an action plan on this front yet, Young said, as members had not seen the budget.
The school board will sponsor a public hearing to collect feedback on the operating budget at 7 p.m. on Feb. 3 at Oakdale High School.