What will Kirwan mean for Worcester?

Commentary by Worcester County Commissioner Chip Bertino

The examination of the Maryland School system and the subsequent recommendations by the Kirwan Commission illuminate the fact that Worcester County in many ways is a leader in education excellence.

From the time the children of Worcester County first walk through the doors of Showell, Buckingham, Ocean City, Snow Hill and Pocomoke elementary schools we as a community have the responsibility to ensure that by the time they walk out the doors of Stephen Decatur, Snow Hill, Pocomoke and Worcester Technical high schools for the last time they are prepared and equipped to successfully embrace the opportunities of college or career.

Between Worcester County government and the Worcester County Board of Education a working relationship has been forged through openness, honesty and at times speaking hard and uncomfortable truths to one another.  This has sharpened our focus on what we hold dear – the future of our county and the future of our education system. 

This year the Worcester County school system celebrated 151 years of service to our community.  During that time, we as county taxpayers have embraced the responsibility to support our teachers and staff.  And we have made the necessary investments to ensure school facilities are maintained properly so that teachers can teach and students can learn in safe, clean and functional environments.  To be sure, there’s room for improvement, there’s always room for improvement.  But Worcester County has demonstrated time and time again that it knows how best to allocate resources to foster educational achievement among our students.  Often, because of the cooperation and ingenuity of County government and the Board of Education the efforts of our teachers and administrators, are on the leading edge of education.

Yet, the unfortunate reality is that when it comes to education allocations by the state, Worcester County has been systemically and historically penalized for the very thing that has made us effective – the positive, engaged and results-oriented relationship among those vested with the responsibility to educate the children of our county.  Worcester County’s best intentions to for years appropriately fund the school system based on local student need and available resources were held against us when Maintenance of Effort (MOE) became law in Maryland.   

Because it does not include variables such as poverty levels and demographics, the MOE formula as currently calculated, is unfair to Worcester County taxpayers who are forced to fund about 75% of the Board of Education’s operational budget, the highest of any other public-school jurisdiction in the state.  By comparison, local taxpayers in the neighboring counties of Wicomico and Somerset fund only about 20% of their respective boards of education budgets.  How is that fair?

And then there are the capital investments above the per student investments.  There are other necessary school system costs borne by Worcester County taxpayers including school construction and remodeling, replacement of HVAC systems and technology.  Allocations for these come from either bonding or the general fund which places an additional responsibility on the county’s budget and ultimately taxpayers. 

Unfortunately, reviewing and revising the MOE funding formula to ensure fairness of state education funding to all school districts was ignored by the Kirwan Funding Group and by the full Kirwan Commission despite the fact this was a stated objective at the Commission’s inception.  Rather than address and fix the inequities of the MOE formula suffered by Worcester and other counties, the Kirwan Commission recommendations bake the inequities into funding projections going forward, thus ensuring no relief for Worcester County taxpayers.  That is not right.

Just a quick mention about school construction.  State school construction funding for Worcester County does not come close to the average 50%/50%, state to local funding ratio articulated by Dr. Kirwan at a recent Wor-Wic Community College presentation.  For example, the state’s financial contribution to the new Showell Elementary School currently under construction is just about 19%, with the balance resting squarely on the shoulders of county taxpayers. 

A planned $10 million addition to Stephen Decatur Middle School, will receive only about $400,000 in state funding, about 4%, far below the 50%/50% partnership that state officials regularly proclaim.

At Wor-Wic, Dr. Kirwan was asked whether state education funding could be impacted during slow economic periods.  He answered that he believed that in such circumstances, state funding could ease up.  His answer raises a red flag. 

What impact would there be on the county during slow economic times should the state ease up on its financial commitment to education funding?  Would reduced state funding be transferred to counties to bridge the funding gap?   This ambiguity is troublesome because during the most recent lengthy economic downturn, state Highway User allocations to counties were slashed dramatically, never to return fully.  That is just one example of the state cutting local funding and/or foisting state budget items to the counties.  

Would Worcester and other counties be susceptible to unfunded mandates?

The financial impact of the Kirwan Commission’s recommendations on Worcester County are jarring:

-Mandated increased local spending despite the fact Worcester is already investing more per student than any other district.

-No adjustment to the MOE formula to ensure state education allocations are fairly distributed.

-No flexibility for Worcester and other school districts to apply Kirwan recommendations in ways that make sense for local conditions.  One size does not fit all.   Worcester County is not Baltimore City.

Should the county be forced to fund at the increased levels stipulated by Kirwan, the money will have to come from other parts of the county budget, either in increased taxes and/or cuts to other services. 

Because of the cooperative relationship between the Worcester County Commissioners and the Board of Education, a relationship that can be counted in decades, Worcester County public schools regularly attain high levels of student achievement and facility care.   School facilities are maintained at a high level, ensuring that more than 6,600 students have an excellent learning environment.  County taxpayers have allocated and continue to allocate money to ensure that schools and classrooms are maintained.  In short, disciplined maintenance plans have positively impacted our schools and students.  The same cannot be said for other jurisdictions that receive far higher levels of state financial assistance.  

In short – county taxpayers invest more per student than any other jurisdiction in the state and county taxpayers maintain our school facilities at an exceptionally high level without the benefit of a fair state education funding partnership.  And the Kirwan recommendations, if adopted in their current form, would deepen the disparity between what is fair and what is not.

Soon the recommendations of the Kirwan Commission will move through the legislative process.  It will become caught up in the swirl of political influences. 

None of us knows whether the recommendations made by Kirwan will become law.  We don’t know what form it will take once the bill is debated in the House of Delegates and the Maryland Senate.  We don’t know what deals will be made for or by state representatives of much larger jurisdictions to attract their votes to ensure passage.  We don’t know whether Worcester County taxpayers will be treated fairly.  We don’t know whether the Governor will sign a final version of the bill. 

What we do know, is that regardless of what happens in Annapolis, Worcester County will do what it has always done – work together to ensure that we continue to provide students an exceptional education experience based on individual student needs, opportunities and county resources.

Anthony W. “Chip” Bertino, Jr.
Worcester County Commissioner
One West Market Street
Snow Hill, MD  21863
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