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Candidates discuss whether school board should be able to levy taxes

October 10, 2012|By JULIE E. GREENE | julieg@herald-mail.com
  • Candidates for Washington County Board of Education seats answer questions Wednesday morning during a forum at the Academy Theater in downtown Hagerstown. They area, from left, Donna Brightman, Justin Hartings, Travis Poole, Wayne Ridenour, and Melissa Williams.
By Joe Crocetta/Staff Photographer

HAGERSTOWN — Viewpoints on the Washington County Board of Education having taxing authority were among the issues discussed Wednesday morning at a school board candidate forum at the Academy Theater in downtown Hagerstown.

All five candidates attended the forum, which was co-sponsored by the Hagerstown-Washington County Chamber of Commerce; the Landlords & Property Owners Association of Washington County, Maryland; the Home Builders Association of Washington County; and the Pen-Mar Regional Association of Realtors.

Four seats on the seven-member school board are up for election in the Nov. 6 general election.

Approximately 25 people, including the candidates, attended the forum.

The candidates did not receive the questions in advance of Wednesday’s forum.

One of the questions candidates were asked was whether they anticipate structural changes to the way resources are raised and allocated for school systems in Maryland.

Incumbent Justin Hartings said the school system already has seen changes in funding allocation. He cited the state passing along a share of teacher pension costs to local governments. That led to the school system picking up the cost, from the county, for school health services.

Hartings said he was not prepared to support, at this point, taxing authority for this county’s school board. That issue has been discussed in other counties, he said.

It’s hard to give taxing authority to a school board without changing the funding structure between the state, the county commissioners, and the school board, Hartings said.

Hartings said he was hesitant to go down that road until someone could explain how that worked.

There is increasing pressure on local governments, so there are going to be pushes in how funds are raised and allocated, Hartings said.

Incumbent Donna Brightman said giving an elected school board taxing authority would give the board more authority, but also make the board more political.

“To me, being a nonpartisan board is why we’re able to find more commonality” and build relationships with other agencies, Brightman said.

Saying almost all local funding and revenue is based on property taxes, Brightman said there should be some discussion about how local government gets its revenues.

Political newcomer Travis Poole said funding resources and allocations depend largely on the state of the economy.

Poole said he agreed “with the notion that perhaps making this board a taxing authority is problematic. I can’t get there at this point.”

“I think our residents are taxed to the max as it is,” Poole said.

Poole said Question 7, which is a statewide question on the general election ballot concerning the expansion of commercial gaming in Maryland, will affect every county.

Poole said he didn’t think all the funding raised from gambling would go to education, but it was clear to him the school system needs strong relationships with the state and the county.

“I can’t wrap my  head around the taxing authority,” incumbent Wayne Ridenour said.

There are a lot of issues related to a school board having taxing authority that 90 seconds doesn’t allow enough time to discuss, Ridenour said. Each candidate had up to 90 seconds to respond to most questions.

The “structure in the county has worked well for us,” said Ridenour, adding that the school board’s relationship with the County Commissioners has been good.

“How they raise money is their job. How we present our budget to them in an effort to get the funding we need is our job,” Ridenour said.

Political newcomer Melissa Williams said she was not in favor of the local school board having taxing authority.

“I think Question 7 is also something we can’t depend on,” she said. Williams said she didn’t see lots of dollars coming to education if Question 7 passes.

The board needs to be mindful about how it’s spending money and that its request to the commissioners are “those of the highest priority,” she said.

The county commissioners were able to bail out the school system when more funding was needed for construction of a new Bester Elementary School, Williams said.

Perhaps that money could have been better spent on a reading initiative, Williams said.

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