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County backing financial boost for special education

November 16, 2000

County backing financial boost for special education



By TARA REILLY / Staff Writer


The Washington County Commissioners and the Board of Education back a recommended increase in state special education funding, noting that costs have risen by more than $8 million over the last 15 years.

Commissioners president Gregory I. Snook and Schools Superintendent Herman G. Bartlett at a recent public hearing addressed the Maryland Commission on Education, Finance, Equity and Excellence, a group formed to review education financing formulas and accountability and make recommendations on how state funding needs to be improved.

Snook said unless state education funding is increased, the County Commissioners could be forced to raise taxes.

A draft interim report of the Maryland Commission's findings recommends increasing state special education funding by $42.3 million, among other findings.

"We in Washington County wholeheartedly endorse this recommendation," Bartlett testified before the commission. "State funding levels for special education have remained essentially unchanged for almost two decades."

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Bartlett said local special education costs have risen over the past 15 years from $3.6 million in fiscal year 1987 to $11.7 million in fiscal year 2001, a 222 percent increase.

The county's fiscal year 2001 general fund budget is about $121.6 million. Of that, about 59 percent, or $71 million, is being used to fund Washington County Public Schools.

"In order to make that funding happen, we had to raise property taxes by 7 cents and increase the local income piggyback tax from 50 to 57 percent," Snook testified. "Even with this increased burden on our taxpayers, we were not able to fully fund our Board of Education's budget request."

Washington County is spending more than $10 million more than the state on local education, he said.

"Clearly, the top priority in our county is education," Snook said. "We want the best schools and teachers for our county's students. But we are being forced to pay increasingly larger shares of the educational budget as state and federal funding has dwindled over the years."

Both Snook and County Commissioner John L. Schnebly said money is so tight in the county that there might not be enough funding to meet the governor's challenge grant this year. The challenge is a two-year program that allows school systems to receive a 1 percent raise for teachers if local governments can contribute 4 percent.

Last year the commissioners met the challenge but had to raise taxes to do so. The raises cost the county about $4 million.

Bartlett said the Board of Education last year told the Washington County Teachers Association that they will receive their raises.

"We've already made a commitment," Bartlett said. "But that's going to take a major block of revenue. It should be our No. 1 commitment. Teachers are key to improving instruction."

Schnebly said the path will continue to be rough.

"We're going broke at the local level funding education," Schnebly said Thursday. "We're heading for this high financial train wreck. They will give all this money for buildings, but the reality is that we might not have any teachers to put in them."

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