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Our View: School board must educate commissioners on finances

May 14, 1999

Less than a month after impassioned pleas for full funding of the school system's budget squeezed another $520,000 out of the Washington County Commissioners, the school system discovered $1.6 million in additional funds.

This discovery comes after a recent hearing in which Finance Director Chris South said no surplus was expected and a week after school officials insisted there was no extra cash in their budget. Despite the commissioners' skepticism, school officials say there's a good explanation for what happened.

Normally, the system calculates what it's spent and what it hasn't at the end of the budget year. In the last two years, that process has resulted in surplus cash of more than $1 million being returned to the county board.

This year, when school officials realized that despite that extra half million from the commissioners, they weren't going to be fully funded, they decided to do their year-end calculations early.

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As in the previous two years, the projection was that there wouldn't be any overspending. Indeed, they found that because of turnover credits - the saving realized when a highly paid senior teacher or employee is replaced with a worker at the bottom of the pay scale and income from, among other things,a Maryland Association of Board of Education insurance pool, the school system would be $1.6 million to the good.

Once the school system made that calculation, officials said they then felt an obligation to move forward with the priorities outlined in their new strategic plan as quickly as possible. To do that, they asked for (and received) the commissioners' okay to use the surplus cash now, instead of returning it to the county at the budget's year's conclusion.

It's a different method than has been used in the past, one not easily explained, which probably led to the commissioners' confusion.

That's why it's important for the school system to lead the commissioners through the process, step-by-step if necessary, and the assure them that there's no sleight-of-hand going on.

And between now and the next budget, a better system of predicting surpluses must be found. As we've noted before, elected officials don't like surprises.

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