The discussions surrounding the proposed budget for the Frederick County Public Schools shows the uncertainty of governing in the midst of a pandemic, while the terrible winds of change are still blowing.

The school system’s budget, which was basically crafted before the worst of the pandemic hit, is going to need to be substantially rewritten. FCPS will get less money than it had requested from the county, and it must cope with unprecedented challenges in educating our children.

When will schools be permitted to reopen? What will they look like when they do? Those are among the most basic questions facing Superintendent Terry Alban and her staff.

The answers are not easily obtained. While the school buildings are unlikely to reopen to finish the 2019-20 school year, we have to believe that at some point they will. But some models of the pandemic do not look encouraging, with new cases and numerous deaths continuing through the summer. And virtually every expert predicts a fall rebound of some kind for the virus.

We are in completely uncharted territory.

Class size is always an important consideration for educators. But what class sizes will even be allowed in the future? Will the students need to be separated by social distancing? Will half of each class come for instruction in the morning and half in the afternoon?

Will high school students continue largely with home instruction? If they do, how will we be certain that all students have equal access to the tools they will need, including computers and internet access?

When the school board approved the FY 2021 budget in February, reducing class size and increasing teacher pay were the paramount concerns. But in the three months since then, our whole world has been transformed.

County Executive Jan Gardner’s proposed budget already reduced the additional operating funds requested by the school system, in large part because of the uncertainty about what the future holds. It is extremely hard to accurately predict future tax revenue.

Gardner proposed spending $7 million more than the “maintenance of effort” level. By state law, every school system in Maryland must continue spending — at a minimum — the same amount per pupil each year.

The school board had requested the county provide $28 million more than the minimum. Funding priorities will now have to be revised with the lower funding, but the revisions are likely to be much more drastic than the staff ever conceived.

For example, Alban explained to members of the County Council recently that making certain that students and staff have access to reliable technology has become even more vital.

FCPS distributed Chromebook computers to students of all grade levels who needed them when distance learning first began in March. If distance-learning continues into the Fall, Alban said, the system might need to replace or refresh 30 percent of those devices.

The cost of buying all those computers virtually eliminated the savings the system saw for not having to bus children to school or hire substitute teachers. Replacing them will cost $2 million, according to Leslie Pellegrino, chief financial officer.

Whatever the costs associated with adapting our schools to a whole new world of education next year, the school system and the county must maintain maximum flexibility.

It is next to impossible to know right now what the needs will be or what the resources will be. Will the federal government approve financial aid to state and local governments that have been hurt by the pandemic? Will the state have the resources to support local needs like education? We just don’t know.

Our elected officials need to defer any new initiatives or programs or making any substantive changes to taxes. Hold tight and see where this storm carries us.

(12) comments

vodalone

If the distance learning continues into next year, parents home schooling their children deserve some kind of tax cut. Parents are put into positions of being untrained teachers to their kids, some having to stay home from work. Kids with IEP plans and 504 plans need more attention and hand on schooling. I appreciate the teachers, but let's be honest right now they're living the good life compared to parents across the nation.

Greg F

It is interesting the standards of education. I do love that there is investment in education as it is this nation's future. That said, having a school-ager and visiting various schools for events, it is truly amazing the facilities that exist now when a new school is built. It really seems that schools in the last 10 years or so, and especially newer ones are almost built to the standards of some of the nicest hotels I've stayed at with state-of-the-art everything (except bathrooms persistently are horrible even for the best schools). I do wonder what the cost-benefit ratio or best-value determination was to go what seems in many cases to be overboard on facilities in recent decades. Yes, older schools look old and lack some functionality, but it almost was as if these newer ones get the gold-plate treatment when bronze may have sufficed. Maybe a second look at facilities would be nice so that they may be able to afford more of an original building to account for future use vs tacking on trailers later on. I mean really, I went to a middle school that was IDENTICAL to the one in A Christmas Story...yeah, it's out of date and was replaced, but what I see now seems to more than exceed the basics. Spend a few bucks on the instructors, materials and equipment vs facilities...I think that would be better use of funds.

DickD

I agree, Fed-Up! I want our children to get the best education possible, but making the schools a taj mal is ridiculous and a waste of money.

jsklinelga

Fed Up

Gardner proposed spending $7 million more than the “maintenance of effort” level. By state law, every school system in Maryland must continue spending — at a minimum — the same amount per pupil each year.

This year? The County Council could ask for a waiver to spend less than the MOE. The standard for granting waivers relates to a severe economic downturn that impacts more than one county

Greg F

I get that, but the idea of creating a palace vs what is basic needs would put less of a burden on everyone. I'd rather see a sensible building that is loaded with great teachers that are paid well and sufficient equipment and supplies so they don't have to pay out of pocket. Nice to have a reduced budget, but maybe some of that can be spent now so that there are supplies for years down the road and upgrades or purchase of enough equipment to go around, especially to do work from home as now. In planning new schools, save some money by not gold-plating...though the bathrooms are still not sufficient in any school I've visited...put a few bucks there. Savings can go to other aspects...maybe even enough instruments for kids who need one or art supplies, and teaching supplies. I'd rather learn in a plain building, built well enough to suffice with some room to grow and with sufficient supplies than sit in the best one without the right things needed to learn with that is bursting at the seams in capacity. Seems the latter is the current practice.

fnpzwack

Per FCPS, diesel fuel savings was spent on computers. How much will FCPS also save on electricity and water bills over the last 3 months of the school year? Utilities for 67 schools are a tremendous cost savings.

Greg F

If you hadn't noticed, fuel prices have tanked in the past year, probably freeing up that funding for other better uses.

jsklinelga

"We just don’t know." Unprecedented times. With 50 States addressing the problems it will be interesting to see the solutions presented. It is not an envious task.

One major driving force behind the push to change the Federal courts concerns our educational system. More flexibility was being sought. Vouchers, charter schools, curriculum etc. We may not have a choice but to decentralize our educational system..

Then the billion dollar question pops up. Unfunded pensions.

Greg F

DeVos is a disaster for education everywhere.

francesca_easa

Please state how?

DickD

Charter schools to start with!

Here are four more reasons DeVos is failing:

https://educationvotes.nea.org/2018/06/26/4-epic-betsy-devos-failures-that-flew-under-the-radar/ 

DeVos continues to support the for-profit college industry

DeVos’s Department of Education is failing to provide Public Service Loan Forgiveness

Women are less safe on college campuses thanks to DeVos’s attempts to reverse campus sexual assault protections.

More than 1,200 civil rights probes have been dropped since DeVos took office.

DickD

You want private schools, I don't. If we have something wrong with public schools, fix them. They can pray in schools, Jim, it just can't teach religion or order prayer. If you want a religious school, pay for it yourself, not with tax money.

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