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Don't discount administration's talent for raising revenue

March 06, 2005|by TIM ROWLAND

If you don't know Gary Dodds, don't worry about it. You'd probably hate him. He is, after all, one of those dastardly few who fall under the title of "school administrator."

But your opinion might be altered somewhat if you knew that he was responsible for bringing an additional $1.8 million into the Washington County school system this year.

Dodds is supervisor of food services, and as such, he keeps track of students who qualify for free or reduced school lunches, based on family income.

Obviously, it's important to see that kids are well-nourished, so that in itself would be a worthy goal. But the other side to this story is that under state school-funding formulas, local aid is tied to the number of kids who qualify for free or reduced lunch.

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When Superintendent Elizabeth Morgan arrived in 2001, the county reported that 27 percent of its kids were eligible for subsidized meals. That figure sounded low to her.

So she got Dodds and the school principals to do some digging. Sure enough, there was a significant percentage of families that qualified for assistance, but - for whatever reason - had failed to sign up for the program.

In many cases, Morgan said, the parents weren't aware the program existed, or else figured they wouldn't qualify. With school administrators energized to the task at hand, the percentage of families qualifying for discounted meals rose to 35 percent. Coupled with growing enrollment, the Washington County school system is receiving $9.5 million more from the state than it did a year ago - money that local taxpayers won't be asked to pay.

Morgan said when she arrived in 2001, "I was desperate to increase revenue on behalf of the school system because I was in 'sticker shock' to see how low the funding was for the school system compared to other places I'd worked, including Frederick." Raising new money became a priority, supported by new board members who made a priority of securing grant money.

Elsewhere on this page is a report indicating that, during the decade of the '90s, the county's school administration costs grew at a rate that was disproportionately excessive to enrollment and administrative costs in other county school boards across the state. Local school officials dispute the numbers, citing Maryland Department of Education statistics showing that administrative spending basically mirrored other jurisdictions in the state.

Either way, it's always a good idea to keep tabs on administrative spending, just to keep everyone honest. But expenses are only half of the ledger. It's only fair to look at income, as well.

What the current administration appears to be very good at is sniffing out funds from a number of sources that are higher up the government food chain. Yes, it's still tax money, but it's not local tax money.

In the five years between 1998 and 2003, the School Board fairly consistently asked the County Commissioners (i.e., us, the taxpayers) for annual increases of about $7 million in current dollars, which translated into requested hikes of about 10 percent.

Last year, though, something began to change. The School Board began its budget process by asking the county for $4.7 million. This year it's nearly $1 million less than that, or $3.8 million. This is basically the minimum the county can be requested to fund under state law that mandates annual increases - plus a few school buses.

Still, the school system's budget is a somewhat staggering $20 million more than it was a year ago, the largest increase in the county's history - so it's not as if students are being lowballed. Morgan says of the $15 million increase in state funding this year, 80 percent is targeted to the classroom and another 17 percent will go toward construction, meaning 97 percent will directly benefit the kids.

Also important to remember is that a substantial chunk of this budget increase is mandated by the federal No Child Left Behind Act, and if the board hadn't foraged for "new" money at the state level, it would have been money we would have had to pay for locally.

This doesn't mean the county will be able to relax. As trailer classrooms start sprouting up around local schools like mushrooms on a log, the need for major, and expensive, building programs will become more evident.

The School Board is hoping that commissioners will take notice of its hard work and success on the revenue side. The board wants to create an image that it is not one to passively sit back and take, but that it is also willing to roll up its sleeves and perform some of the hard fund-raising gruntwork on its own. The logic is that the county will be more willing to pitch in for construction if it sees the School Board doing some of its own heavy lifting - although no millionaires have been made in this county betting on logic to win the day.

Along with highway workers, school administrators are among the most maligned of public servants. Some of it doubtless is deserved. And some will continue to argue that the school administration remains bloated. But even if this is true, it's undeniable that a bloated administration that pays for its own bloat- and then some - is a lot easier to take.

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