When discussing matters of interest with folks outside of this world of zeroes and ones, the question arises as to whether anybody really cares about a particular issue. For instance, the goings-on in and around the Supreme Court are not a Shore-centric topic. If we are a quiet blip on the radar, is it effective to drone on about the SCOTUS? To that I would say two things: I would take the largely respectable discourse that occurs on this bandwidth any day, over what the Beltway intelligentsia continues to bring us. I would also remind everyone that our local leaders aren’t making decisions in a vacuum. There are various levels of government weaving a tangled web of mandates and regulations, providing political cover for some who refuse to make tough decisions.
It is on that second point that we can use recent events inside the beltway to draw a parallel with events on the right side of the Bay. While President Obama was wagging his finger at the Supreme Court, effectively undermining our system of checks and balances, Kent County Superintendent Dr. A. Barbara Wheeler has taken to reaching across the fence on the public school budget issue.
There is a tangled web that we all must step through to fund public schools. Elected officials of the many counties establish the valuation of school funds and transfer them to an elected Board of Education, who in turn takes on the process of allocating those funds to various line items of the budget. The Superintendent is hired by the county to act as the CEO of the schools, essentially making them the liaison between the BOE and the county.
I know what you’re thinking, and yes, of course there’s a catch! All of this must be done under a state framework known as maintenance of effort (MOE). This mandate states that local governments must meet or increase per-pupil funding from the prior year. For all of those who enjoy combing through the Federal budget, this would be a localized version of baseline budgeting.
On top of this mandate, the county Superintendents have red batphones that are connected to the State Board of Education. So if a county were to tinker with the idea that they needed to seek a hardship waiver on the MOE mandate, the county Superintendent could still remind the folks at the state level that the counties need to”do it for the kids.”
All of those events are what has recently taken place in Kent County. An elected body, acting as stewards of its constituents’ tax dollars, is managing the budget pie in tough times. The BOE seems willing to take on the task of what to do with their slice; however, an executive with no county budget authority just might be able to use the power of the state to force the elected body into providing a larger piece of pie.
In some sense, I feel as if I have written this column before. Last year, the county was able to use a loophole in the MOE mandate to “rebase” the school budget. Other counties did the same, to much hue and cry from educrats. This year is different, because the state closed the loophole by confiscating county income tax allocations if funding were to fall below the MOE mandate.
The problems with this mandate are many-fold. There is no mechanism that credits counties for funding over and above the mandate (creating an unnaturally higher baseline). Kent County noted in its waiver request that over a ten-year period, that it has funded $7.6 million(4.6%) above the mandate over the prior ten years. Another problem with the mandate is that it ignores capital projects, and one could argue that this spending is more indicative of “effort” to improve the schools.
If the state were interested in a mandate that would fund schools without spiteful rebasing, the mandate should be enforced over four-year intervals. This would ensure that no child went to school during a Draconian era, yet it would allow local governments to account for a recessionary environment. The Feds can print the money when it fails to manage the process. The state can beg for this printed money to cover its budget shortfalls. When that well dries up, the next frontier is to push responsibilities to the counties. If that is going to be the case, the state should include a mechanism in its MOE mandate that allows for some type of flexibility at the local level.
If the State will not back down from its position on the MOE, it should rethink how its funding formula is applied, you know, for the kids. There is overhead that is incurred whether you are educating the first child in the county, or the 20,001st. For instance, every county BOE needs an office and a Superintendent. If the state were to establish a uniform overhead allocation to be dispersed to all counties prior to calculating its per-pupil funding, less county money would be going towards the bureaucracy inherent in running a local school system. It would be much easier to comply with MOE, and the state would have this overhead allocation as their bargaining chip to enforce MOE.
That last proposal was actually brought forth by the Kent County Commissioners, and presented to the 36th Delegation for inclusion in the2011 legislative session in Annapolis. Guess which folks picked up the red bat phone to oppose this legislation? If the counties on the Shore are going to untangle this web, transparent conversations need to take place. Counties, Boards of Education,and Superintendents must stop fighting for the role of Brutus in this ongoing tragedy.
For the kids: One must wonder if the kids listen to all the jibber jabber. They’re just the pawns in all of this. It’s probably a good idea to highlight some good things, lest they think they’re the reason mommy and daddy are fighting.
I recently attended the 3rd grade engineering exhibit at Worton Elementary School. The kids were presented with the challenge to manufacture a toy composed of found materials that was portable and would appeal to most children. While there weren’t any inventions, there were plenty of innovations. In fact, I began to tally how much I dropped at toy stores when the kids could have just made their own toys.
One girl had a couple of quart-sized paint cans attached to ropes. The cans were lying next to her in a heap. I asked her if we could try out the telephones. She picked up her innovation and demonstrated that she had not made a telephone. She made romper stompers!
One boy used some scrap wood and fasteners to build an army vehicle that rolled and had a working extension arm – incorporating many elements of science’s simple machines. Another used shoe boxes and water bottles to build a ship. Slap a Star Wars logo on it, and that becomes forty bucks at a toy store.
There were also a few board games. One was a brightly decorated egg carton with stones that could be used to play Mancala. That’s at least ten dollars saved.
The best board game incorporated math, geography, and strategy. It was a map of the United States with various stops and connections. If you have ever flown Southwest Airlines, and seen their route map on a napkin, it was a bit like that. Some stops made you money. Others cost you money. The object was to get to California with money left over. Assuming this doesn’t already exist, her parents ought to pitch this thing to Parker Brothers.
KCBR Update: The Chestertown Elks took two on the chin against the Galena Lions and the Worton FOP. The former involved errors of omission. There were a lot of balls hit without relays set up or people covering bags. The latter involved errors of commission, with a drop here and a missed throw there. If I have to choose which I’d rather watch, I’ll take the latter. At least they’re trying.
The KCBR All-Star festivities will be May 19th. Feel free to stop by and see the kids compete. Donations accepted.