Familiar Jockey Rides New Horse: Schools Chief Questioned on $, Security by County Council as Exec McCarthy Offers $1 million Aid

August 9, 2018
By


NEWS ANALYSIS

Jeffrey Lawson is a familiar face in local government circles, as a nine-year veteran of the county public schools’ administrative staff. But that experience was like being an exercise rider at the racetrack before a recent elevation to the top jockey position: Superintendent of the Cecil County Public Schools. In his first race, Lawson didn’t particularly impress the keepers of the purse: the Cecil County Council.

Several members of the Council, meeting in a worksession on Tuesday (8/7/2018), openly expressed skepticism about CCPS’ handling of school security improvement projects and stewardship of county funds. Lawson, in his first appearance before the Council since taking the schools helm in July, did little to ease their concerns or directly address questions over continued security needs– as well as a previous CCPS decision to draw $2 million from reserve funds under CCPS control to build a new field house at Perryville High School while many school security fixes remained unaddressed.

And when Council President Joyce Bowlsbey (R-2) questioned whether a new $1 million security bailout proposed by the county executive would “cover all the schools needs,” she was told that CCPS was on track to boost security at just half of its 29 buildings. In addition, 15 elementary schools are now “essentially uncovered” by video surveillance systems deemed necessary by county law enforcement.

So while the County Council, and county administration, have been searching for a comprehensive security plan and a pricetag to go with it, instead they are receiving piecemeal dribs-and-drabs and no clear bottom line. And Lawson missed out on a golden opportunity to re-assure the Council that he would be a forceful new leader and bring new solutions and vision to the schools.

Meanwhile, Cecil County Executive Alan McCarthy stepped into the security breach on Friday (8/3/2018) with a plan to re-allocate $1 million from a county special fund to bolster school security improvements and sent legislation to the County Council, which began reviewing the proposal on Tuesday.

Keeping with his administration’s almost religious fervor not to follow the fiscal misadventures of his predecessor, Tari Moore, to drain county emergency “unassigned fund balance” reserve accounts to pay for current expenses, McCarthy would tap $1 million from an “assigned” fund reserve that had been set aside to pay the costs of income tax refunds to some local taxpayers under the “Wynne case” US Supreme Court decision. The state of Maryland recently announced favorable long-term repayment provisions of required taxpayer refunds, deducting just $159,100 from state disbursements to the county of local “piggyback” income taxes collected by the state, in 20 installments that would only begin in the fourth quarter of Fiscal 2021.

For accounting purposes, the Wynn case payments would just be reflected as reduced revenues from the state for county income tax receipts, not a liability requiring real-time payments by the county to aggrieved citizens. (The Wynne case involved credits for tax payments to other states that were not offset on county income taxes collected by the state. Since so many Cecil residents work in Delaware and Pennsylvania, this county was one of the hardest-hit counties in the state, with a total repayment liability of about $3.1 million.)

[For several years, from $3 million to $3.5 million to settle the Wynne case refunds had been set aside in an “assigned” account reserved only for that purpose, but former county Finance Director Winston Robinson shifted the money into the “unassigned” reserve fund in the final year of Moore’s term in an apparent bid to minimize the visible extent of her budgets’ raid on the account. But in the budget for the recently concluded Fiscal 2018, McCarthy directed that $1.1 million be put back into an “assigned” fund reserved for settling the Wynne case.]

But new plans by the state, announced in late March, to spread out repayments over many years freed up money to step up school security efforts. McCarthy’s proposed resolution also specifies that no money would be disbursed for school security improvements without full fiscal accounting of every dollar spent to assure money was used for that purpose.

In announcing his bailout of the CCPS school security issue, McCarthy said it was important to “improve the safety and security of the 15,000 students attending our schools and the nearly 3,000 employees who serve our youth…”

The latest infusion of county money into security steps comes after the decision of the former CCPS administration, and a split vote of the county Board of Education, to defer some security expenditures that could have been financed out of the CCPS reserve funds in favor of $2 million for a new Perryville High field house.

The field house plan, and its pricetag, was very much on the minds of several County Council members on Tuesday.

Councilor Jackie Gregory (R-5) questioned “where that money went” and said she would only support the new $1 million in security aid if CCPS provided a full accounting of its “fund balance” accounts. “This needs to get done,” she said of the school security fixes. But, she added, “I want to see what’s in your fund balance first…we could build the fieldhouse later.”

Councilor Bob Meffley (R-1) questioned why the fieldhouse was pegged at $2 million, since a field house at Bohemia Manor in his district cost only $350,000. “A $2 million field house is a pretty nice field house,” he observed.

But the facility outlined by Lawson sounded far from luxurious. He said the facility would have 5,000 square feet of space, with a metal roof and two locker rooms. (That size building works out to a cost of $400 per square foot—pretty pricey, especially since CCPS already owns the land on which it would be built.)

Lawson did not back off support for the field house that was proposed by his predecessor and mentor, former Schools Superintendent D’Ette Devine. But, faced with Council members concerns, he did suggest that “we’re in a little bit of a holding pattern right now” on the field house project. He said he wanted to see “how these issues shake out” when CCPS closes the financial books on current security construction projects, which have so far been coming in under budget.

“When we close out our FY 2018 numbers and see where our fund balance is, then we will make a final determination on the field house,” Lawson said.

Tom Kappra, the CCPS Chief Financial Officer, responded to Councilor Gregory’s question that the $2 million allocated to the fieldhouse “didn’t go anywhere” and that design work was being done before any final cost estimate would be computed.

With four security projects underway and a fifth in planning stages, primarily focused on secure entryways and vestibules at five schools, the Council learned there is a whole new area of concern: video security systems at elementary schools.

Fifteen elementary schools are now “uncovered” Lawson said, with only the newest schools—Perryville and the soon to re-open Gilpin Manor—having video surveillance camera systems that can be monitored by county emergency services personnel. He said Sheriff Scott Adams has said that the most effective security for elementary schools is video systems that can be linked directly to emergency responders.

Bowlsbey also questioned security for portable classrooms around the county and was told CCPS was looking into the issue. She suggested enhanced video systems should be explored.

The latest CCPS money discussions come just a few months after a contentious budget process, in which former CCPS Superintendent Devine battled with both the council and McCarthy, and made a last minute pitch for another $1 million to be re-allocated from “small capital” construction projects into operating funds to pay for negotiated pay boosts with supervisors and other employees. The Council rejected the idea without even bringing it to a vote, as members questioned why school leaders hadn’t budgeted for such an expense from the outset.

CCPS apparently assumed it would get what it asked for and when that didn’t happen, school supporters went into overdrive, with some advocates accusing McCarthy of “blindsiding” CCPS and Devine unsuccessfully urging the Council to boost school spending under loopholes to get around the executive’s budget proposals.

For Fiscal 2019, which began 7/1/2018, CCPS sought a 5.2 percent increase, or $4.2 million more, in county appropriations for school operations. But McCarthy’s budget trims that request to a 1.5 percent rise, with an increase of $1.2 million, including budget transfer funds. McCarthy pointed out that his schools budget proposal of $82.4 million in county funds was still $1.8 million above the state-mandated “maintenance of effort” level of local aid.

Lawson, formerly an associate superintendent of Cecil County schools, is being paid $194,000 a year under his Superintendent contract, according to CCPS. He was selected for the post on a split vote of the county school board—with two members favoring another candidate with more experience.

That candidate, Sean Bulson, a former schools superintendent in the highly regarded Montgomery County, MD school system and a University of North Carolina administrator in charge of partnerships with local public schools, was subsequently named to head Harford County schools after Cecil bypassed him in favor of the in-house favorite, Lawson. Bulson’s salary is $207,500 in the much larger Harford County school system, but that figure is still less than Devine’s final salary figure of $212,000 per year.

Devine’s parting words upon her retirement in June were that “nothing is broken, nothing needs to be fixed” in CCPS. Based upon his first run around the racetrack before the County Council, Lawson seemed to agree.

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