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Struggle for school funding never ends

October 21, 2002|by BOB MAGINNIS

For months members of the Washington County Board of Education have been complaining that the County Commissioners failed to pass along thousands in new state funds earmarked for education.

Last week during a candidates' forum, Del. Sue Hecht, D-Frederick, Washington, had the same complaint, but when I asked the commissioners if Hecht was mistaken, Commissioner Bert Iseminger said "yes."

But the story changed a day later during another candidate forum when Commissioner Paul Swartz said that, yes, the county board had passed along the cash, but had withheld a similar amount from its own contribution to the school system.

"It was meant to enrich, not supplant. But in this one case, we used it to supplant," Swartz said.

But before School Board members start celebrating, they need to consider the possibility that unless there's an economic turnaround, the state legislature may take back part of the grant to plug its own growing deficit, now pegged at $1.7 billion.

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Nor is the next board of commissioners likely to be as generous to the schools as this one, which significantly boosted the county's contribution over the last term, raising property and income taxes to do so.

The commissioners also gave the school system another $319,000 after the end of their budget year, bringing the county's total school contribution to more than $75 million, with about $5 million going to capital construction.

The new cash everyone is talking about came in the form of what's called a disparity grant, designed to compensate for the large percentage of the local population which has low incomes.

The county's share this year is $1.9 million, with $876,584 going to education. The Joint Chairman's Report on the Operating Budget explains that "this language requires that a certain amount of the disparity grant be distributed to the above local school boards to increase the amount of their local contribution..."

County Director of Budget and Finance Debra Bastian said the grant will come in four even payments. But Bastian said she's warned the commissioners that some state aid may be withheld as the legislature grapples with its shortfall.

Up to this point, she said, the amount provided to eight of the state's counties over the years has been up and down. She provided a budget sheet showing that the grant has gone from less than $200,000 in fiscal 1997 to $1.3 million in FY '98 and back down to $500,000 in 2002.

"It's been very volatile. The disparity grant has not been level funding," Bastian said.

If the commissioners had passed along another $900,000, it still would not have fully funded the School Board's budget request. The schools had sought a $5.78 million increase, but got just $1.8 million in new county money, not counting the end-of-year cash for buses and other one-time purchases.

This past Tuesday, Iseminger and the other commissioners defended their support of education, noting that the current board has increased the county's contribution by more than 20 percent over the last four years.

Iseminger also noted that when the county ordered a 3 percent across-the-board cut in expenses last year, the School Board was exempted. And he said the School Board was told before the state's budget was finalized what its share was likely to be.

Not only does the School Board seem to be doing well with the funding it has received, Iseminger said, but the school system has added some new programs, like the Fountaindale Elementary "magnet school," that weren't in the original budget proposal.

For her part, School Superintendent Elizabeth Morgan said that the disparity grant formula was developed over two years by the state Department of Education and the legislature's financial experts.

Morgan said other counties passed their grants on with no strings attached and they were used for a variety of items, like reducing class sizes and purchasing new textbooks.

And she said part of the thinking behind the increased funding was that the federal "No Child Left Behind" law will require new local expenditures to meet standards and track students.

So what happens now? Hecht and the other members of the county's General Assembly delegation are likely to write a bill for the 2003 session that will mandate that any disparity grant money earmarked for schools will be in addition to the county's contribution and not a part of it.

That will be the easy part. The hard part will be finding ways to increase funding for education when the tobacco tax money runs out, as it's expected to do in two years. It will be easy for the delegation to say that the school system should get the money, but much harder to find a new pot of cash.

Bob Maginnis is editorial page editor of The Herald-Mail newspapers.

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