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County lags in student spending

July 12, 1999|By BRUCE HAMILTON

Washington County spends less on its students than all but one school district in the state, according to a Maryland State Department of Education report.

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The county also has more money per pupil than nine other Maryland jurisdictions, statistics from the report show.

Schools Superintendent Herman G. Bartlett Jr. says the gap reveals an unfair level of local funding.

Bartlett and School Board President Edwin Hayes on Friday sent to the Washington County Commissioners a strongly worded letter urging more financial support for the school system. They used the state's figures to make a case that the county isn't contributing enough.

"It is time to reverse the pattern of declining local funding," the letter says. "The school system has extended their resources as far as possible. We can no longer blame the direction in funding on the state."

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County Commissioner John Schnebly said the county has increased the School Board's budget more than 7 percent for the last three years. "We really question whether we can sustain that kind of compounding without more revenues," he said Friday.

"Certainly we realize our system has problems. We understand that it's a problem being competitive," he said. "I think we made our best efforts to give the board as much as we could this year."

Schnebly said the commissioners need to know what "full funding" will mean 24 to 36 months in the future.

"I'm not pleased to know that we rank as low as we do," said County Commissioner Paul Swartz. "We are making attempts to fill some of the voids they are pointing out."

Commissioners President Gregory I. Snook declined to comment Monday, saying he had not read the letter.

According to Bartlett, the School Board's share of the county budget shrank over the last 10 years. Figures from the Washington County Budget and Finance Office show the share has dropped from 57 percent in fiscal 1990 to 53 percent in fiscal 2000.

Those portions are based on money strictly allocated for School Board operations. They do not include the school nursing program or funding for capital improvements, such as new school construction.

Washington County spends an average of $6,047 per pupil, according to the state. That's less than any other jurisdiction except Caroline County, which spends $5,985. Montgomery County spends the most per pupil at $8,287. The state average is $6,821.

Each school system receives funding from the state based on a formula. The "wealth per student" ratio divides a county's taxable income, real estate property assessment and public utility operating property by the number of students in its schools.

On the wealth scale, Washington County ranks 15th with $194,795 per student. Baltimore City has the least per pupil at $129,061 and Worcester County has the most at $437,530.

Bartlett said the county should rank higher in per-pupil spending because it ranks higher than many jurisdictions in wealth. "One would expect the two rankings to be comparable," the letter says.

The county would have had to give another $3.4 million to the School Board this year to rank 15th in per-pupil spending, according to Bartlett.

Bartlett also compared salaries, noting that Washington County teachers with master's degrees make less than teachers in any other Maryland school system, $35,171. The average principal's pay in Washington County is $63,788, the 19th lowest in the state.

Bartlett said Washington County student performance is steadily improving. The county's average verbal score on the Scholastic Aptitude Test is at the state average of 499. The average SAT math score is 512, seven points above the state average.

The county's composite scores from the Maryland School Performance Assessment Program are rising. In 1993, 31.9 percent of Washington County's students scored at the satisfactory level. By 1998, that figure had climbed to 48.3 percent and had risen each year in between.

The letter ties student success to funding, suggesting that more money would help the school system fulfill its potential.

"The system is now at a crossroad," the letter says. "Can we expect to see continued improvement on student achievements without adequate funding?"

The commissioners are scheduled to meet with the School Board at North Hagerstown High School 3 p.m. Thursday. Bartlett is on vacation and will not be present.

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