Cecil County Schools Get Windfall from State Kirwan Aid, Boosting Budget Over Demands for County $; Library Touts Citizen Support

April 10, 2019

Cecil County Public Schools (CCPS) will get about a $4.8 million windfall from new state aid, designed to be a “downpayment” on new educational improvement initiatives recommended by the state Kirwan Commission, in its new Fiscal 2020 budget—undercutting school advocates’ claims that students would suffer because the County Executive did not give schools everything they wanted.

Dr. Jeff Lawson, the CCPS superintendent, appeared before a budget worksession of the Cecil County Council on Tuesday (4/9/2019) to explain his budget. He presented budget summary sheets that did not account for the new Kirwan aid and when he discussed numbers, he quickly mentioned that he was “not counting Kirwan.” It was not until Councilor William Coutz (R-2) specifically asked him about how much Kirwan aid would be pumped into the new CCPS budget that Lawson acknowledged a figure of “about $4.1 million.”

In fact, the updated “fiscal policy note” on the legislation—enacted last week– calculates Cecil County’s share of Kirwan-related special aid at $4.8 million in Fiscal 2020 and estimates the same amount for Fiscal 2021. The aid includes $1,624,000 for special education; $1,553,000 for teachers’ salaries; $441,000 for transitional support instruction; $83,000 for a mental health services coordinator; $498,000 to aid schools with a high concentration of poverty among students; and $625,000 in aid to compensate for declining enrollments. (In the past CCPS has argued that the declining enrollment funds amount to a credit against past aid rather than an infusion of new money.)

Although the House-Senate conference agreement was ratified just last week, the General Assembly’s overall plan for a major fiscal “downpayment” on the Kirwan Commission’s recommendations in the new Fiscal 2020 budget has been known for months, including county-by-county aid calculations. Statewide, the package provides $255 million in new aid to local schools in Fiscal 2020, which begins 7/1/2019. At this point, the legislation does not require any local county aid to match or supplement the state Kirwan aid.

On Tuesday, Lawson ran through the numbers of the CCPS total budget and its original request for an increase of about $6.2 million from county funds. “I’m not going to come and ask crazy big numbers,” he told the Council.

Cecil County Executive Alan McCarthy’s new budget proposal, which is now pending before the County Council, gave CCPS a $2.44 million increase over current operating budget levels, providing $84.9 million—the largest component of the county’s overall spending, despite declining school enrollment. The budget would boost county school aid by $3 million or 3.6 percent above the state-mandated “maintenance of effort” level, which requires counties to provide at least as much local school aid as in the previous year.

So, with the new Kirwan state aid boost plus McCarthy’s spending increase for the schools, CCPS ends up with $7.2 million extra, or $1 million more than CCPS actually requested from Cecil County.

Cecil County, and other counties in the state, face an uncertain fiscal cost in the future as detailed Kirwan legislative mandates are sent to the General Assembly next year. And with those fiscal questions up in the air for local coffers, county officials are wary to lock in a lot of extra local spending now that would have to be duplicated next year, under the “maintenance of effort” existing mandate as well as new local spending mandates that may be on the horizon.

Lawson said up to 85 percent of the CCPS budget goes to employee salaries and benefits. He also outlined high costs of special education services, including “very pricey” student placements at the Maryland School for the Blind and a Delaware special needs educational provider of services that cannot be offered in local schools. (Cecil County has one of the highest rates of special education students in the state.)

One divisive budget issue seems to have been taken off the table for now. A proposed field House at Perryville High School drew controversy—and a rare dissenting vote on the county’s Board of Education—when it was proposed with a $2 million priced tag, to be drawn from CCPS reserve funds last year, ahead of needed security upgrades for many county schools. The field house was eventually sidelined in the current budget year and Lawson said it was once again put on the back burner in the new budget, although it is now projected to cost about $1 million.

The County Council cannot increase spending in the budget above levels proposed by the County Executive but can make cuts to spending.

Meanwhile, Morgan Miller, director of the county public library system, told the County Council that “Cecil County is reading more than ever,” and ticked off a roster of numbers showing increased usage of county library facilities, including digital media, library computers and special services for small business operators and school children.

She said the library was helping to “bridge the digital divide that still exists in Cecil County,” where many areas have limited Internet services especially in rural areas or where families cannot afford to have private Internet services at home.

In McCarthy’s budget, the county library system receives a budget increase of $361,165, or 5.7 percent over current levels. The library system is in the process of planning and directing construction of a new library in North East that will also house the system’s administrative offices, which will move from a section of the Elkton library. In the future, the library will have to add some staff to handle operations at the new much larger facility in North East, which for years operated in a tiny facility with limited staff.

For years the countywide library staffing level was frozen (since 2009) but in McCarthy’s first budget for Fiscal 2018 there was an addition of a part-time business librarian to support small business economic development.

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