Candidates target money for schools

October 21, 2002|by ANDREA ROWLAND

Most of the 10 candidates for Washington County Commissioner in the Nov. 5 election have made funding public education a top priority.

They say the state's dwindling contribution to education puts more pressure on county coffers to pay for existing and new programs, many of which are state-mandated.

Yet the candidates differ on whether the county puts enough money into education and how county and state education funding methods could be improved - or at least made more reliable.


The five Republican and five Democratic candidates' suggestions for boosting or firming up education funding range from legalizing slot machines in Maryland to instituting a school tax to increasing the county sales tax.

Some candidates recommend making the county's annual contribution to public schools a fixed percentage of the county's general fund budget or property tax.

Others advocate reducing "waste" in the school system to better utilize the funds available from the county and state.

Most candidates - including Democrats Paul L. Swartz, Jim Brown, Constance S. Cramer, Bert L. Iseminger and Herbert Hardin and Republicans James F. Kercheval, Doris J. Nipps and William J. Wivell - call for a stronger county voice at the state capital.

"I think we need to keep pressuring our delegates until they get the message," said Commissioners Vice President Swartz, 64, of Maugansville. "Education should be the number one priority on every politician's mind."

Brown, former athletic director at Hagerstown Community College, echoed Swartz's call for a "world-class" education system in the county. This could be achieved, in part, by forging stronger bonds with state delegates, Brown said.

"If Jim Brown is elected, there will be a recommendation that says we will meet monthly (with delegates) to discuss issues - and education would be one of those issues - not wait until it's time to go to Annapolis," said Brown, 65, of Williamsport.

Main source

The county is the Washington County Board of Education's main funding source, followed by the state. The federal government contributes a small percentage.

The county will contribute $70.1 million and the state $59.4 million to the School Board in fiscal 2003. The county this year also funneled more than $876,000 in state funds earmarked for education to the board, schools Superintendent Elizabeth Morgan said.

The county's contribution to the board's general fund accounts for 52.5 percent of the county's $133.7 million general fund for fiscal 2003.

This year's allotment marks a 2.8 percent increase over the $68.2 million the School Board received from the county last year, but is less than the $74.1 million the School Board had requested.

The education budget process usually sparks debate between school and county officials.

The commissioners "don't accept our figures, but we're supposed to accept theirs," said Hardin, a commissioner candidate and School Board member. "They're really blind-siding the public about this '60 percent' going to public education - that includes money to HCC and everything else."

Commissioners President Gregory I. Snook and fellow incumbent candidates Swartz, Iseminger and Wivell said they've done their best to fund public education during the last four years.

The commissioners said they've raised property and real estate taxes to provide more school funding, and attempted to enact a real estate transfer tax to provide more cash for school construction. The state delegation did not want to pursue the transfer tax.

The average annual increase in local operational funding for schools during the current commissioners' four-year term is 6.2 percent, compared to an average annual increase of 5.2 percent from fiscal 1996 to fiscal 1999.

The county's general fund budget, excluding surpluses, has grown by an average of 6 percent per year since the current commissioners took office four years ago.

'More than fair'

The county has been "more than fair" to education, said Snook, 44, of Williamsport.

The commissioners exempted the School Board's budget from a 3 percent cut imposed on other county government departments. They also have given the board "more than typical" budget increases and have dedicated a portion of the county's budget surpluses to the School Board to help cover one-time costs, Snook said.

The board is slated to receive $319,000 of the county's expected $2.1 million budget surplus for fiscal 2002, county Director of Budget and Finance Debra Bastian said in early October.

But Hardin said the state and county could do more to support education.

Nearly 90 percent of the School Board's operating budget covers employee salaries and benefits - which are still lacking as compared to other school districts in the state - leaving little money for educational programs, said Hardin, 67, of Hagerstown.

"We don't pay our teachers enough so we can pay for programs," he said.

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