Cecil County Schools Get $4M State Aid Windfall but Still Sing Budget Blues; High Costs Limit School Security Upgrades

May 23, 2019

As the Cecil County Council moves into the final stages of its review of the new Fiscal 2020 budget, county school officials told Councilors they still face budget shortfalls despite nearly $4 million in newly confirmed state aid that boosts school spending by even more than the educators asked for. But higher than expected costs on school security upgrades will leave ten schools still without needed improvements.

The County Council, which is scheduled to adopt a new budget in the next few weeks, completed its meetings with county department heads to review spending proposals with a final call-back session with leaders of the Cecil County Public Schools (CCPS) on Tuesday (5/21/2019) to follow up on an earlier meeting. The next step is a countywide public hearing on the budget before the Council tonight at Elkton High School followed by one or two worksessions next week. A new budget is scheduled for adoption by the Council on June 4.

Appearing before a Council worksession on Tuesday morning, CCPS Superintendent Jeff Lawson updated figures on how much the county schools will receive under new state legislation designed to serve as a “downpayment” on broad state spending boosts for education as called for by a state panel, known as the Kirwan Commission. The General Assembly approved a package that provides $255 million statewide 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 but in future years counties may be on the hook for an as yet unknown amount of extra local aid.

Lawson said the latest tally of Kirwan-related aid to CCPS in Fiscal 2020 is $3.95 million, slightly less than earlier estimates because one school ended up not qualifying for special extra aid based on enrollment of low-income students. So that problem cut that extra aid from the previously state—announced figure of $498,000 to $249,000 in the upcoming Fiscal 2020 budget.

But CCPS will still get a windfall of new state aid that leaves the schools with a substantial net gain of funds above even the schools’ spending wish list for the new budget year.

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. At the same time, the proposed budget would boost county school aid by $3 million or 3.6 percent above the state-mandated “maintenance of effort” (MOE) level, which requires counties to provide at least as much per-student school aid as in the previous year. (Declining enrollment would have allowed the county to reduce its overall spending and still obey the MOE rule, but the executive chose not to reduce local aid accordingly.)

CCPS had asked for an increase of about $6.2 million from county funds. With the infusion of the new Kirwan funds, amounting to $3.95 million by Lawson’s estimates to the Council, plus McCarthy’s increase of $2.44 million, that total of $6.39 million in increased funds is still well above the schools’ original budget boost request.

(The state budget also provides an extra $625,000—with Cecil County singled out by name in Gov. Larry Hogan’s budget address—to compensate for and offset declining enrollments that would otherwise reduce state aid to the county. However, CCPS officials categorize that money as a credit against past aid rather than an infusion of new funds and Lawson did not include that money in his accounting to the Council.)

Lawson sought to downplay the new infusion of state money, which comes late in the budget process but will be available for spending in the new budget year that begins on 7/1/2019, and he asserted the schools still faced a $3.8 million budget “shortfall” and would have to tap its “unassigned fund balance” reserve funds.

There was no line-by-line documentation of such a “shortfall” claim when the new state aid allocations and McCarthy’s budget boosts for schools suggest otherwise. But Lawson and aides did document problems in paying for continuing construction work to upgrade security for entrances to county schools, largely due to bids coming in at higher than anticipated costs. Such costs are supposed to be paid out of small capital construction cost accounts.

School officials outlined the ongoing efforts to construct secure entrances to all county schools, a process that has been slowed by contractor bids coming in at higher costs than initially forecast.

So far, five schools have completed entry security upgrades in the latest round of improvements in Fiscal 2018: Kenmore Elementary, Elkton Middle, Perryville High, Rising Sun High, and Bohemia Manor High School, at a total cost of $883,625. Only the Bo Manor project, at a cost of $334,879, was paid for out of the regular “small capital projects” budget for Fiscal 2018 while the remaining projects were paid for out of the CCPS “unassigned fund balance” reserve funds.

Currently under construction are security upgrades at four elementary schools: Cecilton, Holly Hall, Leeds and Cecil Manor, at a total estimated cost of $999,340 with funds provided to the schools as part of the county’s overall current Fiscal 2019 budget. But higher than anticipated costs—nearly three times the initial estimates—meant that fewer schools could be upgraded with the available funds.

As a result, upgrades at other schools were postponed or delayed, with 10 schools still needing security improvements. (In previous years, the remaining 14 school facilities were upgraded with security improvements now completed.)

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