Schools chief says finances at 'bare bones'

April 27, 2003|by TAMELA BAKER

"Contrary to public belief," Washington County Superintendent of Schools Elizabeth Morgan told the County Commissioners earlier this month, "we're efficient and a lean and mean operation."

The occasion was the School Board's presentation of its annual request for funding from the county government. This year, the Board asked for $7.1 million more than last year's $70.1 million allotment.

School officials said it was the minimum amount needed to meet new federal requirements in a system they felt was already "doing more with less than any other school system in the state," Morgan said.


During a recent interview at her office, Morgan said the perception among some county residents that there's an abundance of "wealth on Commonwealth" - the location of the School Board's administrative offices - is a myth.

"We're at bare bones," Morgan said. "The average salary here is $60,000; these are people at the top of their careers. If I eliminated 10 of those, it would be like eliminating the command in the Iraqi war - and we would've only netted $600,000.

"There are not enough people here to eliminate to close the gap," she said.

Deputy Superintendent Patricia Abernethy said many of the administrators remain in their offices working late into the evening.

"It shows a commitment to improving the system," she said. "There's a wonderful work ethic here."

She said there are only two academic supervisors for grades K-5, which includes students at 29 sites.

According to the Maryland State Department of Education, the overall average teacher salary in Washington County for the 2002-03 school year was $44,919, which ranks 16th out of the 24 jurisdictions in the state. That's slightly above the county's median household income of $44,450 in 2001, the latest figure available from the Maryland Department of Planning.

William Blum, chief operating officer for the School Board, said Washington County is the 12th wealthiest in the state. The county's median household income - one of several criteria used in calculating its wealth - ranks 15th.

Teacher salaries

Washington County ranked 18th in the state for starting teacher salaries, 22nd in salaries for mid-level teachers with graduate degrees and 19th for maximum teacher salaries, according to the state Department of Education.

Washington County schools employ more staff members for the student population than counties with comparable enrollment, according to data from the state Education Department.

For the county's 2001-02 enrollment of 19,961 students, its schools employed a total of 2,392 staff members. Of those, 1,686 were instructional staff - teachers, guidance counselors, librarians and aides - and 706 were noninstructional staff, including administrators and support staff.

Support staff includes technicians, custodial workers, secretaries and some bus drivers, among other positions.

By comparison, the two counties closest to Washington County in enrollment - Calvert and Charles counties, which are also two of Maryland's richest counties - employed proportionally fewer staff members for their student populations.

Calvert County, with a student enrollment of 16,651, employed 1,841 staff members, of which 1,335 were instructional and 505 were noninstructional. Charles County, with a student enrollment of 24,001, employed 2,490 staff members, including 1,838 instructional and 652 noninstructional.

Washington County school officials say the number of support staff members has decreased, particularly in the areas of facility repair and custodial work. They also say each technology staff person, responsible for computer maintenance, handles 409 computers, compared with 294 computers per person in neighboring Frederick County schools.

High hopes

Although they'd never done it before, Morgan said she believed the County Commissioners would fully fund the School Board's request for new money in its operating budget for next year. The commissioners tentatively whittled the board's request of $7.1 million down to $3.7 million.

Morgan said she thought the commissioners would come up with the full amount because they understand the school system is under pressure to raise student performance levels and teacher standards under the federal No Child Left Behind education reforms.

"I think we came in with a very realistic figure," she said.

School officials said they had reduced their request for new money from the state and the county by about $11 million before it was presented to the commissioners.

Chris South, director of Budget and Finance for the School Board, said the original wish list from school officials totaled $34 million in new money from the state and county.

"I knew we'd never get that," Morgan said, "so I told them to go back and cut."

That figure was cut to about $13.8 million, South said, with $6.7 million requested in state money - which is waiting approval - and $7.1 million requested from the county.

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