Funding local schools

April 21, 2003

Last week the Washington County Commissioners balanced their general fund budget without raising taxes, in part by cutting $3.8 million from the school system's request.

We understand the commissioners' reluctance to commit more, given the continuing uncertainty about how much state aid will be lost and because the General Assembly has already raised its share of the property tax.

But with the federal "No Child Left Behind" law adding new and unfunded mandates for local schools, we urge the county to revisit this issue when the funding picture becomes clearer.

Last Tuesday the county passed a $138.6 million budget, about $5 million more than in fiscal 2003. Of the $4.9 million in new revenues the county will get this year, schools will receive about two-thirds of it, as part of a total county contribution of $74.6 million.


The most surprising reaction - and perhaps the wisest - came from Superintendent Elizabeth Morgan, who said that although schools need more, she felt that the commissioners did "try hard to give us the most that they could..."

What will the cut mean to local schools? Probably fewer classroom teachers, with those who depart not being replaced immediately. Proposed new programs that are "nice-to-have" as opposed to "must-have" will be put on hold as the system gears up for the record-keeping and other tasks "No Child" requires.

We don't advocate raising taxes to cover those costs now, because we're still unsure how much state aid will be trimmed, or what tax increases the legislature will seek next year. There is a limit to the burden that taxpayers can be asked to bear. And if the state doesn't restrain its demands, then local government must.

To cover the shortfall, we recommend that the school system seek business partners to "adopt" each school. If a business becomes identified with a particular school, it could assist with fund-raising, grant-writing and providing volunteers.

This would also be a good time to start aggressively raising funds for the Washington County Public Schools Foundation, to build an endowment to generate income to offset some costs. Until the economy recovers, tough times will require some innovative ideas.

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