Nothing lean about Washington Co. schools

Washington County's "staffing costs" are more than 80 percent of the school systems annual operating budget.

Washington County's "staffing costs" are more than 80 percent of the school systems annual operating budget.

May 21, 2003

To the editor:

The (April 27) Herald-Mail has two articles about our public school system. The first is an article by Tamela Baker, interviewing Superintendent of Schools Elizabeth Morgan entitled "School chief says finances at bare bones." The second is an op-ed column by Commissioner Jim Kercheval, entitled "Stories of government waste mainly wives tales."

Baker is to be complimented for providing sufficient background research to allow the reader to question Morgan's assertion that our public school system is an "efficient and a lean and mean operation."

In addition, her research confirms Kercheval's acknowledgment that there is "waste in the school system," but proves that the level of waste is not inconsequential as his editorial implies.


Kercheval asks us to "look at the whole picture to make a responsible judgment" and concludes the commissioners and the board "spend the money efficiently."

I hope I can convince Kercheval to take his own advice. For when Baker writes that "Washington County Schools employ more staff members for the student population than counties with comparable enrollment," that's an understatement. The staffing level differences she illustrates uses two "rich counties," Calvert and Charles. Their elected officials actually are running an "efficient and a lean and mean operation."

In fact, all but Maryland's smallest school systems (3,000 to 5,000 students) control their staffing levels by operating schools that have the known "economics of scale" which allows them to deploy both human and capital resources economically and efficiently.

Commissioner Kercheval need only run the "students per employee ratios" for Calvart and Charles counties to disprove his own column assertions that we are spending public money on education efficiently.

Allow me to illustrate the point. Calvert County has 551 fewer full-time employees than Washington County to educate 16,651 students. Charles County employs 98 more full-time employees, but educates 4,040 more students than Washington County.

The number of "students per employee" ratios for these two counties are most revealing. Calvert County would pay 219 fewer full-time employees and Charles County would pay 352 fewer full-time employees to educate 19,661 students. Calvert County would use 110 fewer instructional staff while Charles County would use 181 fewer instructional staff.

You have to be a victim of "new math" to contend that employing 219 to 352 more full time employees than necessary represents a "lean and mean" operation.

Simply multiply 219 or 352 by any realistic full-time employee cost, including fringe benefits. The average teacher salary in Washington County, not including fringe benefits, is reported to be $44,919 and an average plug number for "noninstructional" staff with fringe benefits would be $35,000. That means between $7.7 million to $15.8 million in annual excess staffing costs are incurred each year. I have contended for two years now that the number is between $10 million to $12 million annually. That's not petty cash.

In addition, that figure does not include the annual "operation costs" and "maintenance costs" required to maintain a 44 school system operation with 15 "micro schools" (fewer than 300 students). Closing Conococheague takes a chip out of this iceberg of inefficiency.

The board's own report entitled the "Facilities Review Committee" report published Feb. 13, 2001, confirms that our 15 micro schools lack the "economies of scale" necessary to operate efficiently nor have they improved student performance.

Washington County's "staffing costs" are more than 80 percent of the school systems annual operating budget. These costs are growing at a 7 percent inflation rate. That means our school system payroll doubles every 10 years.

Unlike Washington County, Baker notes that Calvert and Charles counties are "rich counties."

Yet our commissioners and school system continue to spend our education dollars less efficiently than those "rich" counties.

If these facts disturb you, call your Commissioners. Ask them to conduct a performance audit done by outside professionals. This statutory remedy was placed in the Code of Maryland for that purpose.

This code protects elected officials from the wrath of the politically powerful education bureaucracy. Tax, borrow and spend is not a viable solution when our elected officials know beyond any doubt that they have a fiduciary obligation to taxpayers to take "corrective action" to address this level of known mismanagement and waste in our public school system.

Harold "Hal" Phillips
Clear Spring

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