Commissioners Seek Budget Guidance from Citizens– But Don’t Give Any to Schools
Cecil County commissioners will seek guidance from a citizen advisory panel on the upcoming Fiscal 2012 budget but they were unwilling to give any guidance to the county school system Tuesday on what to expect in funds from the county.
Commissioners discussed the formation of the citizens’ panel at their worksession meeting, and Board President James Mullin (R-1st) said he wanted to have a written proposal spelling out the details for next week’s worksession.
Commissioner Diana Broomell (R-4th) suggested the county follow the example of Harford County, which has a five member advisory group. She said each commissioner could appoint one person.
Commissioner Robert Hodge (R-5th) suggested a 10 member panel, with each commissioner naming two people to “get a broader base” of experience. Mullin said commissioners should appoint people with “some budget and financial background” who are not “novices.”
Commissioner Tari Moore (R-2nd) said it was “absolutely critical” that the commissioners move quickly and give some “direction” to the panel. Broomell disagreed, saying, “I wouldn’t want to put up parameters or restrictions” on what the panel should look at.
Hodge emphasized that the commissioners were “not delegating our responsibilities away” to the advisory panel and the commissioners would make their own decisions on how to assemble the budget in these tough financial times.
But Hodge was unsuccessful in trying to get some guidance out of fellow commissioners so that the county schools could get a heads up on what to expect in this year’s budget deliberations. The schools budget consumes a major portion of the county’s overall budget but the county government is limited by state law in how much it can cut school spending.
“Are you going to fund the maintenance of effort level, flat funding or something else,” Hodge inquired. “If we’re leaning in some direction,” he said, commissioners should let the school system know as quickly as possible to enable officials to make contingency plans.
“All options are on the table,” Mullin said.
Looming is the suggestion that the county might seek a waiver from the state for the mandated “maintenance of effort” funding level for public schools. The maintenance of effort mandate requires a county to provide the same per student level of aid as in the previous year, with overall spending only altered due to changes in enrollment numbers.
Several counties that proposed that option last year were turned down by the State Board of Education for failing to demonstrate severe financial hardship. With the infusion of slots revenue coming to Cecil County from the new Hollywood casino in Perryville, any attempt by the county to claim hardship to get out of the maintenance of effort standard would seem unlikely to be approved.
Nevertheless, Broomell said she had asked officials about the possibility of a ‘waiver” of maintenance of effort due to concerns about the state possibly shifting teacher pension costs to the counties. She said she was advised to “wait until the middle of the [General Assembly] session” to see what happens at the state level.
Gov. Martin O’Malley ruled out a shift of some teacher pension costs to the counties in the upcoming fiscal year in his new budget and legislative package issued a few days ago. But some legislative leaders have said the Governor’s proposed pension reforms for new employees do not go far enough to reduce future costs.
The Cecil County school system held its first public budget discussion Monday and posted detailed budget information on its website at:
The draft proposal anticipates the same level of county funds–$68.35 million in Fiscal Year 2012– as in the current budget. Under state formulas, that would be a “flat funding” level keeping overall spending the same. But under the state mandate for “maintenance of effort,” the county could lower that amount by about $1.2 million due to lower enrollment figures.
The schools recorded a 273 student enrollment drop as of last Sept 30, down from 15,620 to 15,347. Keeping the “flat” spending formula in the overall budget request to the county would actually raise the per pupil expenditures by the county by $80 in the new budget, from $4,376 to $4,454 per student paid by county taxpayers, according to school budget documents. Or, put another way, the county would be paying the equivalent of full per capita aid for students who aren’t actually enrolled—resulting in extra funds above the “maintenance of effort” level.
The total schools budget including federal, state and county aid, would amount to $178,527,532, a decline of $3,228,115 from the current budget levels, largely due to cuts in federal aid passed through the state government, according to the budget documents.