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School board to face tough choices if it has to shoulder pension burden

Some Washington County Board of Education members say it could mean layoffs

January 18, 2012|By JULIE E. GREENE | julieg@herald-mail.com

After learning Wednesday that Gov. Martin O'Malley's proposal to shift some teacher pension responsibility to local jurisdictions was expected to cost Washington County $2.46 million, several school board members said there will be some tough decisions ahead if that ends up as the final figure.

Some members of the Washington County Board of Education wouldn't speculate whether the school system could cover the pension costs without laying off employees, but a few said it would be difficult not to cut jobs.

"Naturally, it's a blow," Board President Wayne Ridenour said.

"It's disappointing. It's not something that's totally unexpected," Ridenour said of the pension costs.

"The ball's now been dropped to our staff to find out what we do in the worst scenario," he said.

Schools Superintendent Clayton Wilcox and school system officials are currently working on a proposed budget to present to the seven-member school board. They hope to have state budget figures within a week, school system spokesman Richard Wright said.

"My position the whole time through the recession has been to try to avoid layoffs. That's still going to be my position. Do everything we can to avoid layoffs," Ridenour said.

As to whether the school system or county should pay for the pension costs, board member W. Edward Forrest said: "I don't think it's practical for us to ask the county to provide an additional $2 million considering the state of things."

The school system, Hagerstown Community College and the Washington County Free Library all have employees who participate in the state teachers pension plan, but most of those participants are school system employees, according to information provided by the three organizations.

Hard decisions are coming, Forrest warned.

"That's why we're elected to do that job," he said.

Employee costs account for the bulk of the school system's operating budget, he said.

As of last April, personnel costs accounted for more than 85 percent of the school system's general fund budget, according to Herald-Mail archives.

"It could mean the whole budget needs to be reworked," Forrest said.

Forrest wasn't sure the school system could cover $2 million in pension costs without laying off people.

"I think it's likely that some sort of pension pushdown will come down this year, but I think it's way too early to know what that will mean for us," board member Justin Hartings said.

The governor's proposed budget still has to be approved by state legislators, he said.

But a $2 million burden in one year, "that's a significant hole that we have to figure out how to fill," Hartings said.

Hartings and board member Donna Brightman said it was too soon to speculate whether the school system could cover about $2 million in pension costs without laying off employees.

"I'm not ready to throw in the towel that this is a done deal. I still think there's time to negotiate," Brightman said.

Brightman said she thought the $2.46 million pension costs should be offset by the pension costs the school system already pays for some employees.

Wright said the school system spent about $1.6 million in the last fiscal year for pensions for noninstructional personnel such as custodians and bus drivers. Those employees contributed to their pensions, but the state did not, he said.

Board Vice President Jacqueline Fischer said there are still many unknowns about other funding programs for the school system and whether they might help the school system deal with pension costs.

"I don't know which would be worse, to increase class sizes or to lay teachers off," Fischer said.

There is the possibility of shifting people into classroom teaching jobs, she said.

"I think we're going to have to be creative. Whether we have to actually lay teachers off or not, we're going to have to be very creative however we handle this situation," Fischer said.

"It definitely will require some real careful scrutiny of the budget and will possibly mean some cuts will have to be made," board member Paul Bailey said.

When asked about the possibility of layoffs if the governor's proposed pension proposal doesn't change, Bailey said: "No, I don't think you can make up all of that without touching people.

"When you start touching other things, you're touching classroom supplies and instructional needs. And there's not much there to work with."

Board member Karen Harshman said there were no circumstances in which she would be in favor of doing anything to raise class sizes.

"I wouldn't want to think that we would just jump into layoffs because that's a quick cure," Harshman said.

That could affect class sizes and course availability, she said.

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