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Bowers says county can fully fund school budget

April 30, 1998|By DAVE McMILLION

Saying he can no longer tolerate local teacher salaries being at the "bottom of the totem pole," Washington County Commissioner Ronald L. Bowers said Wednesday he has a plan to fully fund the proposed school budget without raising taxes.

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Bowers said the Board of Education budget for 1999 can be funded with $2 million in unexpected tax revenue the county will receive during the current budget year.

Other county officials, however, say the extra money already has been earmarked for other programs, including a "rainy day" fund for unanticipated expenses.

"You have to have a steady cash flow. What do you lean back on?" said Commissioner R. Lee Downey.

More than a dozen people urged the commissioners during a budget hearing Tuesday to fully fund the school budget, saying the district faces a crisis because of low teacher salaries and crowded classrooms. They also talked about a curriculum audit that showed many problems in schools.

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Some at the meeting said they want more funding for schools even if it means raising taxes.

The school board has submitted a $108 million budget that seeks increased funding from the commissioners of about $9 million.

That request includes $3 million for a "cohort adjustment" - a special pay raise designed to bring local teacher salaries in line with other pay scales in the region. School officials do not expect the commissioners to act on the request this year.

Removing the $3 million adjustment makes the school board request for new money next year about $6 million, officials said.

The commissioners have pledged to give the school board $54.2 million, an increase of about $4 million. That leaves a funding gap of about $1.8 million.

Bowers said County Administrator Rodney Shoop reported last year that the county had underestimated revenues by $2 million, but the actual figure is $4.5 million.

A line item in the 1996-97 budget was not changed to reflect the higher revenue, and Shoop has continued to budget as if there is only $2 million extra, Bowers said. The extra money can be used to make up the $1.8 million shortfall, he said.

Bowers said the county's funding picture also was helped by a $2.5 million tax increase last year. The commissioners last year voted to raise the property tax by 10 cents per $100 assessed value. Bowers voted against the increase.

Debbie Bastian, the county's director of budgeting and finance, said the extra money already has been allocated. Bastian said $2 million was put into cash reserves to meet unexpected costs.

Of the remaining $2 million in extra money, $1 million is earmarked for a renovation of South Hagerstown High School and the other $1 million is for improvements at Hopewell Road and Halfway Boulevard, Bastian said.

If the commissioners fully fund the school budget, the county will be committed to maintaining that level for schools, Downey said. Future commissioners could be left with no option but raising taxes, he said.

Downey said the commissioners might be able to get $500,000 to $700,000 extra for schools next year, but they cannot fund the total school budget request.

Commissioners President Gregory I. Snook said he could not comment on the budget talks Wednesday.

"I really haven't given the budget any more thought since last night," Snook said Wednesday.

Commissioners James R. Wade and John S. Shank could not be reached for comment.

The commissioners are expected to vote Tuesday on their proposed $105.8 million budget.

The county's starting teacher salary of $25,075 is ranked 21st out of 24 school districts in Maryland.

The proposed school budget includes $3.5 million for wage increases for school employees, a proposal that is separate from the "cohort adjustment."

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