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County ranks low in per-student spending

December 11, 1998|By BRENDAN KIRBY

Washington County ranks near the bottom of the state in school funding, spending less per student than even most counties that are poorer, according to the Maryland Department of Education.

Only Frederick and Caroline counties spend less than the $5,869 per student that Washington County spends on its schools.

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"I think it has a direct impact on education," said Washington County Board of Education President Edwin Hayes. "That per-pupil figure is very important to us."

Despite recent budget increases, Hayes said the county lags behind other area school systems in teacher pay.

"We're losing our talented, very good teachers," he said. "The county pie is growing, but the percentage of what's coming back to education is decreasing."

Per-student education funding ranges from a low of $5,631 in Caroline County to $8,035 in Montgomery County, the highest in the state.

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Local school systems receive state funding based on a formula that takes a county's wealth into consideration, according to Assistant State Superintendent Ron Peiffer.

The so-called "wealth per student" ratio divides a county's taxable income, real estate property and public utility operating property by the number of students in the public schools.

The formula is designed to even out financial differences among the state's rich and poor counties, Peiffer said.

"We try to balance that out a lot," Peiffer said.

Baltimore City, which has the lowest wealth per student ratio at $126,024, receives the most state aid, $2,700 per student. But Worcester County, which has the highest wealth per student figure at $461,193, gets only $205 per student in state aid, Peiffer said.

Washington County, which ranks 16th in wealth per student, receives $2,301 per student in state aid, Peiffer said.

Hayes said Washington County, with a wealth per student ratio of $186,197, is not rich enough not to need much from the state but not poor enough to qualify for a great deal of aid.

"We're neither wealthy, nor are we poor. And that hurts us," Hayes said.

Jenny Belliotti, president of the Washington County Council of PTAs, said she thinks the per-student funding ratio demonstrates that the county needs to spend more on education.

"In some respects, that's what parents have been saying for a while. It disappoints me, but it really doesn't surprise me," she said.

Belliotti said an extra $600 per student, which would put the county in the upper half, would make a huge difference in schools. She said many parents would support higher taxes if it meant more money for education.

But Belliotti said she is not even sure the county needs higher taxes to boost education spending.

"We can afford it. The community cannot afford not to," she said.

Belliotti and others praised recent steps taken by the Washington County Commissioners to address school funding, including last year's 8.5 percent budget increase.

But they said the recent increases have not yet countered years in which the county fell behind neighboring counties.

"I don't think it was a top priority in the past," said Commissioner Paul L. Swartz. "It will be the top priority of this board."

Swartz said the county should aim for the middle of the pack in per-student funding and other education indicators.

Per-student funding doesn't automatically translate into educational achievement. Washington County students, for instance, outperformed their counterparts in 11 other counties in last May's standardized tests of third-, fifth- and eighth-graders.

But School Board member Doris J. Nipps said the county's water and sewer debt has drained money from education that will become critical in the next several years when experienced teachers retire.

"I don't think money buys everything, but we're looking at a teacher shortage in the next couple of years," she said. "I'm not sure I want just anybody."

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