The Support Our Schools (SOS) parents’ group came to the Kent County Commissioners’ meeting Tuesday, Sept. 19, and they had a clear message for the county officials.
Jodi Bortz, Robbi Behr and Francoise Sullivan, three of the founders of the SOS group, told commissioners Ron Fithian and William Pickrum that education should be a priority for county government, and that they will hold elected officials accountable for any shortcoming in the county’s support for the sehools. Commissioner Billy Short was absent from the meeting.
The SOS group read a statement responding to a letter the commissioners published in the Kent County News, in which they said the county is faced with flat revenues both from taxes and from state funding. The commissioners’ letter also noted that they are responsible for running the entire county, not just the school system, which is partially funded by the State of Maryland.
In a reply published in the Chestertown Spy Sept. 14, SOS challenged the commissioners’ assertion and presented data supporting their position. At the meeting Tuesday, the parents reiterated their challenge, noting that the percentage of Kent County’s contribution to the schools is 37 percent of the budget, lower than the statewide average of 42 percent. SOS also questioned why the county required the school system use its fund balance to make up a promised $1.6 million contribution from the commissioners. Sullivan said the schools’ fund balance should be the same percentage as the county’s, which is 7.5 percent of the budget.
In response, Pickrum said schools in “a lot of other” Maryland counties don’t have a fund balance. He said “it doesn’t take forever” for the commissioners to supply additional funding when the school board faces an emergency. He also noted that the county has taxing and borrowing authority, while the board of education does not.
The commissioners called on Pat Merritt, the county’s chief finance officer, to present data supporting their position. Merrit presented slides showing that the county’s contribution to the schools has remained essentially level over the last five years. She also said that the discrepancy between Kent’s contribution to the school budget and the higher percentage in other counties is explainable by the fact that Kent has only 10 percent of its population in the public schools, compared to an average of 15 percent statewide.
Bortz said the health of the school system is a key ingredient of the economic health of the cuunty. She said the commissioners would be well advised to increase the funding for the county’s Economic Development Commission so it can publicize Route 301 economic zone, the county-wide gigabit internet service, and attend regional economic events to publicize the county. An increase in economic activity will produce an increase in tax revenues, providing more money for sehools and everything else, she said. “We stand ready to assist,” she said.
Behr said as the SOS group concluded, “Let’s make Kent County a place to live, rather than a place to die.”
The meeting began with a presentation by Superintendent Karen Couch, who summarized the school district’s decision to terminate its contract with Reliable Transportation of Baltimore, the contractor brought on to provide bus service to the county schools. After receiving numerous complaints of late buses, missed pickups, poor communication and other problems, the school district decided to adopt a hybrid system, under which it would use local contractors for some routes and purchase about 13 buses to serve the rest of the routes in the county. She detailed the financial arrangements, and requested the transfer of $175,000 from the school district’s fund balance to cover the cost of the adjustment. The commissioners approved the request.
Couch also asked if the school district could park some of its buses as the county’s public works department on Morgnec Road and others at the Kent County High School lot in Worton. Current zoning does not allow a bus depot in the county. She said the school district would apply for a zoning text amendment to allow a depot for school buses, and requested a waiver of the application fee. The commissioners approved the request to use the Morgnec road facility for bus parking. As for the fee waiver, County Administrator Shelley Heller said it should be requested when the application is submitted. “That should be a no-brainer,” said Fithian.
The commissioners also approved a request by the school district to fuel the buses from county supplies, which are purchased in bulk at a considerable savings over market price. The audience at the meeting gave Couch a round of applause at the end of her presentation.