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School Board

Funding from county is critical

April 07, 2003|by TAMELA BAKER

tammyb@herald-mail.com

The stakes are higher this year in the annual tug of war between the Washington County Board of Education and the County Commissioners over money, school officials say, and not without reason.

Responding to complaints about education standards, the Bush administration has adopted the most sweeping education reform program in nearly 40 years.

The federal No Child Left Behind act aims to do a number of things, but the main feature of the plan is to make states and schools more accountable for the performance of individual students. Built into its framework are new requirements for teachers, programs and student testing.

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Implementing those requirements will cost the School Board $5.3 million in the fiscal year beginning July 1, according to board estimates.

That money forms the bulk of the School Board's request for $7.1 million in new money from the County Commissioners. The board must also pay more than $2 million in cost increases for health insurance.

"President Bush has asked the state and local governments to step up to the plate to meet those mandates," said William Blum, chief operating officer for the School Board.

Blum said he had not even considered potential cuts should the commissioners fail to come up with the full request.

"There is no 'Plan B' because President Bush says there's no 'Plan B,' " he said. "Not fully funding puts these goals and mandates at risk."

If the commissioners were to give the School Board its full request, it would be the first time.

B. Marie Byers, a longtime former School Board member, said she was unaware of any instance in which the County Commissioners had fully funded a School Board budget request. She had little reason to believe this year would be any different - particularly since the county government is facing a budget crunch of its own.

"They don't have it," Byers said. "That's factual; that's nobody's smokescreen."

"I have been a county commissioner for 12 years," added commissioners President Greg Snook, "and it's never happened."

Asked whether she believed the county would fully fund this year's School Board budget request, Commissioner Doris Nipps - herself a former School Board member - flatly said "no."

Mandates understood


Nevertheless, Nipps said, "I think the Board of County Commissioners has a good idea" of what the School Board faces in meeting No Child Left Behind mandates.

"As a whole, I would say we have a better understanding of it than we had a few months ago," Snook said, citing a series of meetings between the commissioners and the School Board.

For its part, the School Board has taken a number of steps to try to save money. The closure of Conococheague Elementary and consolidating administration of Funkstown and Emma K. Doub Elementary Schools should save administrative costs, and bid sharing with state and county agencies saves money on utilities, health care, food, custodial supplies and other needs.

Blum added that deferred maintenance projects on schools is saving the county $2.4 million in interest expenses per year "in all the wrong ways." Some schools in line for renovation do not have safety sprinkler systems, he said.

School officials say the reforms, which President Bush signed into law last year, leave them no choice but to implement the changes despite the price tag.

"We are tying the budget to the outcomes and master plan" required under the reform, Schools Public Information Officer Carol Mowen said. The goal of the reform, she said, is to "close achievement gaps" between individual students.

The proficiency level is set by the state, and everyone must meet that level by the 2013-14 school year.

Teacher development


Much of the new money would be invested in teacher development, said Chris South, director of budget and finance for the School Board.

"We will have to put a lot of money into development to get teachers up to curve," he said. "Many teachers in middle schools are certified to teach kindergarten through eighth grade, and they may be teaching seventh- or eighth-grade math.

"No Child Left Behind requires that teacher to be certified in math - and the teacher could be in mid-career," South said.

School officials say they've been given these mandates without new federal dollars to pay for them, so the money must come from local sources.

But information provided by the U.S. Department of Education and confirmed by the Maryland State Department of Education shows the federal government has earmarked nearly $300 million to Maryland in the 2004 budget to help implement No Child Left Behind reforms. How much of that money would eventually flow to Washington County, however, is still unknown, said State Department of Education spokesman William Reinhard.

"It's too early to tell how much Washington County will get," Reinhard said, adding that most of the money - about two-thirds - falls under Title 1, which targets schools in low-income districts.

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