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School officials defend discovery of extra funds

May 11, 1999|By BRUCE HAMILTON

Washington County Board of Education members Tuesday defended their discovery of $1.6 million in "unexpected" savings a week after insisting they had no extra money.

[cont. from front page]

In a joint meeting at Hickory Elementary School, the Washington County Commissioners approved $1.6 million in adjustments to balance this year's school budget.

The transfer of funds among categories will enable the School Board to fund maintenance projects and buy buses this budget year instead of using funds from next year's budget. That will make enough money available to fully fund the 1999-2000 budget.

The School Board had asked the commissioners for approximately $61 million for the fiscal year that begins July 1. The commissioners agreed to give the School Board about $59.1 million.

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Immediately after the 4-1 vote, two commissioners questioned the sources of the surplus.

Commissioners Vice President Paul Swartz said it bothered him that School Board Budget and Finance Director Chris South told him in a recent hearing that no surplus was expected.

"We generally don't make those calculations until the fourth quarter," said Schools Superintendent Herman G. Bartlett Jr. "I take credit for that."

Commissioner William Wivell, who voted against the transfer of funds among categories, said, "It's almost like stuff is being hidden from us."

It seems as though the School Board figured it wouldn't get full funding, so it withheld financial information, he said.

"You had to be fully aware of this money before we voted on the budget," he said.

"I don't think we were fully aware of it," Bartlett responded.

"All I'm asking is that there is honesty between the two boards," said Wivell. He later said that he was not accusing anyone of deception but the appearance of deception concerned him.

School Board member Doris J. Nipps said there was no attempt to deceive. "It's a tough game for us. ... We do the best we can with some of these numbers," she said.

South said he received the financial results for the third quarter of the fiscal year in mid-April. He said he completed the calculations a few days ago.

"I want to assure you the answers I give you are honest and true," he told the commissioners.

"I didn't think there was going to be any excess. I was not trying to mislead you. There are no hidden agendas. I'm trying to shoot as straight with you as I can."

By law, the School Board cannot move money between budget categories without the county's approval. The School Board would have had $1.6 million in deficits and surpluses without the adjustment, according to South.

About $631,220 in revenue came from higher-than-anticipated interest income and dividends from a Maryland Association of Boards of Education insurance pool, South said.

Part of that amount includes increased reimbursements for students sent to private facilities such as Brook Lane Health Services. The School Board saved $407,090 in salaries from vacant positions, late hires and staff resigning or otherwise leaving the system.

A lower-than-normal retirement system rate, lower-than-normal unemployment claims and lower salary costs saved $339,640, according to South.

An additional $211,130 was saved because of fewer and less expensive special education needs. A mild winter resulted in fuel oil savings of about $12,130.

The School Board is using its savings to cover a variety of expenses such as increased telephone costs, postage and building improvements. Most of the money, about $811,220, will go toward the purchase of 20 new buses this year.

The board is closing its North Street warehouse, incurring more than $100,000 in costs associated with the closing, South said.

School Board members and commissioners said they are happy with the positive outcome but both sides looked forward to better cooperation.

"There are still some tremendous curriculum problems we need to deal with," said Commissioner John L. Schnebly.

"We need to have a shared vision," said School Board President Edwin Hayes.

"I think you made out really well," said Commissioner Bert L. Iseminger. "I'm happy for Washington County, I'm happy for education, I'm happy it worked out this year."

"I thank you on behalf of the entire education family," Bartlett said.

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