As if our county schools have not been wrenched enough by the impact of the coronavirus pandemic, now the system is threatened by a loss of millions of dollars in state aid because of a decline in enrollment.
During a recent joint meeting with the Frederick County Board of Education and school staff, County Council members were told that school enrollment fell by 211 students this year and that could equate to a funding loss of $2.5 million from the state
School leaders said that, because of the pandemic, some of those families chose to home-school their children or send them to private schools.
Leslie Pellegrino, the chief financial officer for FCPS, told the council that — while the decline of 211 students is a small percentage of the nearly 44,000 students enrolled in public schools — strict application of the state funding formula would harm our county.
On top of everything else the schools have been through this year, this is simply unacceptable.
Other school systems across the state and education advocates from around Maryland are pushing the state to hold all school districts harmless for any enrollment declines in this, the most unpredictable school year in more than a century.
Our school board and our local legislative delegation must join that lobbying effort and speak out loudly to preserve our funding. County Executive Jan Gardner and the council should also join that chorus.
While no official estimates have been released thus far, it is inevitable that local and state tax revenues will be hammered by the economic impact of the pandemic.
Comptroller Peter Franchot, Maryland’s tax collector, predicted in early October that if the labor market recovery slowed down, it would dramatically reduce revenue. And right on schedule, job creation in November was less than half of what it had been in September and October.
As Franchot reported, the labor market is key to state revenues as it directly impacts income tax withholding and sales tax, the two largest sources of state tax revenue.
Pellegrino, the school system’s finance chief, said the question is, how will Gov. Larry Hogan treat the funding formula in his budget?
“If he goes strictly by the formulas, and we get $2.5 million less in our funding, then the legislators have to find that funding from somewhere else if possible, and of course we know that, just like the county revenues, the state revenues are precarious through this pandemic,” she told council members.
The state must not abide strictly by funding formulas established during normal times during this most abnormal of all times.
The school leaders also are hoping that the state and county will be able to continue funding at the maintenance of effort level, which is determined by the previous year’s funding, plus a percentage. But there is no guarantee of that.
With the pandemic raging and the school system incurring additional expenses this year to cope with it, the maintenance of effort formula is likely to be disrupted as well. The district has received $14 million in funds from the federal relief programs and has used it to help transition to distance learning.
It is important that the state adjust to the extraordinary circumstances and not punish school systems for changes that were out of their control. We believe we can trust that Gov. Hogan will recognize that and take it into consideration when writing his budget for the next fiscal year.