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Board of Education hopes for budget help from commissioners

April 29, 2002|BY TARA REILLY

tarar@herald-mail.com

The Washington County Board of Education is holding out hope that the county will substantially increase its contribution to the fiscal year 2003 school budget.

But three members of the Washington County Board of Commissioners said Sunday that the School Board's hope is unrealistic.

If changes are made to the county budget, they would be minor and not happen before May 7, when the commissioners take their budget to a public hearing, Commissioner Bert Iseminger said.

The hearing will be held at 7 p.m. at Hagerstown Community College's Kepler Theater.

Interim Superintendent Elizabeth Morgan and two School Board members said they were putting off making cuts to the school budget in case the commissioners change their allocation by the time of the public hearing.

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"There will be zero chance by May 7," Iseminger said. "My guess is that budget is pretty firm."

"The dice is sort of cast there," Commissioner John Schnebly said. "I don't think we're going to go into session next week and change anything."

Commissioners Vice President Paul Swartz said he didn't think the county would be able to come up with any new revenue for fiscal 2003.

"Our chance of getting a windfall from someplace is about as likely as a lightning bolt hitting us," Swartz said.

Last week, the commissioners adopted the county's proposed $133.9 million fiscal 2003 budget, which includes $70.1 million for the School Board's 2003 operating expenses, an increase of $1.8 million over the county's current contribution of $68.3 million. The School Board would also receive $5 million in capital expenses and an additional $496,000 toward school bus expenses, the commissioners said.

The School Board has asked for a $5.78 million increase, or a total of about $74.1 million. The School Board's total proposed budget is $132.8 million.

In addition to the proposed $1.8 million from the county, the School Board will receive about a $2.1 million increase from the state through a grant and recent legislation that raises the state's contribution to public education.

Morgan said the School Board hasn't decided how it would use the state increase but that it was intended as a supplement to the county's contribution, not in place of it.

Without the full $5.78 million from the county, School Board member Roxanne Ober said the board would have to use the state increase toward basic operating expenses rather than adding more educational programs. She called that possibility "unfortunate."

"The commissioners are planning on our budget being met through the (legislation) money," School Board Vice President Bernadette Wagner said. "Certainly, that money was not intended for that. We hope the county understands the true intention of the funding."

Ober and Wagner said Montgomery County is using its state increase to fund additional programs over what its local government is allocating toward the school system.

Iseminger said he disagrees with the School Board's understanding of the legislation and that the state increase should be used to level out the education contributions of the state and county.

He said the county has been contributing 55 percent of the School Board's budget, while the state has been allocating about 45 percent.

"I think the elected School Board and us have a little bit of a difference of opinion in what that state money is supposed to represent," Iseminger said.

He said the School Board should start prioritizing its expenditures for next school year and cut spending where necessary.

"This is just a tough year, and everybody's got to share in some of that pain," Iseminger said.

School officials, however, have said the budget request is enough to fund the bare necessities, such as salary increases and increases to health insurance costs.

Iseminger said the county had to make cuts to its budget to give the lion's share of new revenue to the School Board and the Washington County Sheriff's Department for the next fiscal year.

The county has about $3.4 million in new revenue to distribute among all county agencies, the commissioners said.

Iseminger said the Sheriff's Department got the highest percentage increase of all the county's agencies and the School Board received the highest dollar increase.

With the state and county increases, Iseminger said the School Board should fare well for the next fiscal year.

"The Board of Education has done better than any one of the county agencies that we fund," he said. "In total dollars, the Board of Education by far got the majority of the new revenue."

Iseminger said the School Board got about 70 percent of the county's new revenue.

Swartz said all other county agencies received a 3 percent funding cut, including nonprofit groups, but the School Board did not.

"It hit all the way around, and education didn't take a cut," Swartz said. "They just didn't get what they wanted. We have to make do with the budget that we have, and for one time, the School Board is going to have to make do with what we have."

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