Hard Talk: Residents Press County Commissioners to Increase School Budget

Share

Residents crowded the Kent County Commissioners’ hearing room Tuesday, June 5, to weigh in on the county’s proposed budget. The discussion grew heated as many of the crowd registered their disappointment with the education portion of the budget, which fell short by approximately $600,000 of the school district’s funding requests.

The above video contains most of the public comments made by audience members after the budget presentation.  Each person wanting to speak had to sign up at the beginning of the meeting.  Each was limited to three minutes and a loud buzzer indicated when the three minutes had expired.  Speakers were held fairly strictly to the limit.

The budget portion of the meeting began with Pat Merritt, the county’s chief financial officer, giving an overview of the budget’s provisions. With help of a PowerPoint presentation. Merritt showed that 65 percent of the county’s revenue, nearly $31 million, derives from property taxes. Another 28 percent, or nearly $13 million, comes from income tax. With over 93 percent of the revenues tax-based, Merritt said, the only way to increase revenue is to raise taxes.

Merritt went on to say that Kent County’s property tax rate, at $1.022 per $100 assessed value, is second highest on the Shore and seventh in the state. The income tax, at 2.85 percent, is fifth highest on the Shore and 16th in the state. Raising the income tax rate to the maximum allowed by law would produce another $3.3 million, she said. Meanwhile, growth over the last five years has been essentially flat, with property tax revenues up by some $700,000 and income tax down by roughly the same amount.

In response to the flat revenues, the county has taken steps to reduce its expenditure, including retiring $21.5 million in debt, roughly 52 percent of the total owed. It has also reduced its insurance costs by joining the Local Government Insurance Trust, and it plans to reduce vehicle costs by moving to a lease plan instead of owning its vehicles outright – a plan that will also reduce the age of the county’s fleet, Merritt said. Several departments have undergone cuts, including a $238,000 cut for county roads, $215,000 cut for parks and recreation, and nearly $100,000 less for information systems, and a number of positions have been cut. In addition to these steps, the county has taken important steps to encourage economic development, which in the long run will add to its tax base.

Addressing specific portions of the budget, Merritt paid particular attention to the allocations for education. The county allocates 38 percent of its budget to the school system, compared to 45.6 percent statewide. The FY 2019 budget for education, at $17,194,263, represents an increase of $228,000 over FY 2018 and is $303,000 over the maintenance of effort standard required by law. Over the last 10 years, the county has spent $2.2 million more than maintenance of effort, while the student population has declined by 216 and there are three fewer schools, she said.

Pat Merritt, the county’s chief financial officer, presented an overview of the proposed FY 2019 Budget for Kent County

The school district’s fund balance – in essence, a sort of “rainy day fund” – has been cut back over the last few years, and a further reduction of $695,000 is scheduled for this year, Merritt said. That would leave the schools with $605,000, which is more than $100,000 above a target amount set by the county for the fund balance. The commissioners argued that no other county department maintains a fund balance. They said that with the increase of $228,000 over the FY 2018 budget, the schools will receive more than $900,000 more than last year. In addition, a request for $423,000 for capital projects was fully funded, Merritt said.

In summary, Merritt said, the FY 2019 budget focuses on economic development, increases the operating funding for the schools, fully funds the schools’ capital projects, and provides resources for reducing ambulance transportation costs in the county.

Kent County Commissioners in session Tuesday, June 5, 2018

Following Merritt’s presentation, the commissioners opened the floor to public comment. First to speak was Dr. Karen Couch, superintendent of education for the county. She began by thanking the commissioners for their support of programs including laptops for all students, building repairs, and refurbishing the football field at Kent County High School. The FY 2019 budget presented by the school district was well-thought-out, she said. However, while the district has “made great strides” in addressing salary inequities, it needs more to become competitive and retain staff. Teacher salaries rank 22nd in the state, and administrator salaries are 24 – “dead last.” With shortages of teachers and administrators, the district is at a disadvantage in competing with neighboring counties.

The maintenance of effort standard was created to assure continuity from one year to the next, not as a ceiling, she said, and it does not address inflation, rising costs, or new programs. Combined with declining enrollment, it becomes “a prescription for disaster,” she said. She said the system has reduced positions in order to maintain salary and benefits for its staff. But the county ranks last in the state in per-capita expenditure per student, and keeping the schools on their path to excellence requires continued investment. In closing, Couch said that the schools must be considered an investment, not an expense, to the county’s budget.

Kurt Landgraf, president of Washington College; and Karen Couch, Superintendent of Kent County Schools.      Photo by Jane Jewell

Washington College President Kurt Landgraf said that looking at maintenance of effort in an environment of declining enrollment would put the county in a downward spiral, losing teachers and undercutting the economic base. He said the college was finding it increasingly difficult to attract faculty and staff to come live in the county. He said that Couch’s request for an additional $500,000 was well thought through, and would increase both the schools’ viability and the ability to attract more people to the county.

Rebecca Heriz-Smith, parent and member of SOS (Save Our Schools)      Photo by Jane Jewell

Rebecca Heriz-Smith was one of several members of the Support Our Schools (SOS) coalition to address the meeting. She noted that the education budget includes an increase of $15,000 to Chesapeake College, while the amount actually going to the county’s public schools is $13,000 less than last year, and $636,000 less than was actually requested. She said it is becoming clear that social workers and counselors are needed in schools all across the country. She said the district had already cut needed programs as well as both teaching and staff positions and would now be forced to cut more under the current budget. She said she was going to vote against the incumbent commissioners in the fall election and would urge her friends and neighbors to do the same.

Jim Luff, former chairman of the county’s economic development commission, said the commission had recommended supporting Kent Forward in its goals to make the school system one of the top five in the state, and that the county’s comprehensive plan said that county should strive to have the best school system in the state. He noted the many stories about families not wanting to move to the county because of the schools and made the link between economic development and the quality of the schools. While the commissioners frequently expressed their support for the schools during their meetings, Luff said the budget actually showed “an erosion of that support.” He said the county needs to find a solution to the problem, noting how residents have come together on the hospital and bridge issues. “We cannot afford to lose one more family,” he said in conclusion.

Deryn Tilghman, a Garnett Elementary School Parent, spoke of volunteering with a third-grade class her child is in. She said her family moved here a year ago, despite being told by colleagues at Washington College that the schools had a poor reputation. She said the family was proud to be part of the public school system, and had given many hours of volunteer work worth thousands of dollars. ‘We decided to see for ourselves, and I’m so glad we were lucky enough to meet some incredibly smart, passionate people on our very first visit to our public school.” She said they saw a lot of potential in the schools, but “potential won’t do.” She said she had hoped to see an indication of support, but “I just keep hearing adversity.” She expressed hope that the commissioners would live up to some of the ideas expressed at the meeting, going for collaboration rather than bemoaning expenses. “It’s the only way we can live up to some of this potential,” she said.

Gina Jachimowicz
Director of Teaching and Learning for Kent County Public Schools

Nathan Stroyer

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Nathan Shroyer of Quaker Neck told of having two properties he bought to create affordable housing, one on High Street and one in Church Hill. He said that when he put them on the market, the one in Church Hill received more than 20 responses, most of them from Kent County parents looking to establish a Queen Anne’s base so their students could qualify for that county’s schools. There were no responses for the High Street property in Chestertown. He said several of the parents spoke of racial tensions in the Kent County schools they hoped to avoid in Queen Anne’s.

Another speaker, Tim O’Brien, said there are several property owners who are regularly delinquent in paying their property taxes, many of whom own a large number of properties through shell corporations and now owed cumulative taxes of $100,00 or more for several years. He said the county needs to enforce and penalize these owners so it can collect its full share of taxes.  The commissioners did respond to this by pointing out that legally they cannot just take over private property.  There are strict rules to follow.  When most of these properties became eligible to go up for auction due to unpaid taxes, no one bid on the properties.  Any bidder must pay the back taxes before they can take title to the property.  The properties in question tended to be empty lots or properties in areas that were not very commercially valuable.  Thus the county has trouble recouping the unpaid taxes by selling these properties at auction.

Tim O’Brien spoke about unpaid property taxes – the tax that schools depend upon for their revenue.

Francois Sullivan, parent and member of SOS (Save Our Schools)      Photo by Jane Jewell

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Also speaking for the SOS group were Francoise Sullivan, Jodi Bortz, and Robbi Behr. While they emphasized different points, they all said the proposed budget was inadequate to the schools’ needs. And they repeated Herz-Smith’s warning that residents unhappy with the budget’s allocation for the schools would be watching the commissioners and basing their votes on how they responded to the schools’ financial needs.  Some spoke angrily of feeling misled and betrayed by promises of support from the commissioners that never materialized. Several said that they believed that the commissioners were not doing their jobs as they were elected to do.

All told, nearly twenty residents spoke at the public hearing, all but a few addressing the school portion of the budget. At the end, the commissioners had several comments in response. Commission President William Pickrum said that the budget is “a zero-sum game,” with every increase for one department or program making it necessary to make cuts somewhere else. “Every agency and department wants more,” he said. He said the county has 20,000 residents, only 2,000 of whom are students in the schools, and the budget must address the needs of the whole county. He noted that senior citizens make up a large proportion of the county’s population and that health care and transportation remain crying needs in the county. He said the commissioners had spent a lot of time and energy on the budget, that they didn’t always agree, but they still needed to make the hard decisions. Pickrum also spoke about the need for everyone to keep the discussion civil and to remember that we can disagree without being disagreeable.  He feared that the animosity and harsh language would prevent compromise and solutions from being found.  Several of the audience members who spoke also expressed the desire for those involved to sit down together and try to find mutually acceptable answers to the problems the county and the schools are facing.

Commissioners Ron Fithian and Billy Short also commented. Both referred to posts on social media attacking the commissioners, some of which they said were not only abusive but indecent. Short gave Sullivan a printout of some posts, which she agreed used language that was not acceptable. Short said he stands by the budget as written, and does not intend to make any changes.  Fithian emphasized again that the school system had the large fund balance that they could use for whatever purpose they chose.  He noted that in fall 2017, the schools, in order to save money, had chosen to contract a Baltimore-based company for bus service.  When that didn’t work out, he said, the schools suddenly found the money to buy brand new buses.  They worked with that year’s budget appropriation plus the fund balance to pay for the new buses.  Fithian stressed that the county does not tell the school system how to spend the allocated money or the fund balance.

Following the various speakers, a general discussion developed between the audience and the commissioners with quite a few people speaking passionately about the issue.  The discussion became rather heated points and four or five people made a point of shouting their disapproval and finally walking out in protest.

Kris Hemstetter, principal of Rock Hall Elementary School, gave an impassioned account of almost daily crisis in the schools.

At the very end of the meeting, Kris Hemstetter, principal of Rock Hall Elementary School, gave an impassioned account of the need for social workers in the schools. She told of a student who was “throwing chairs” while the social worker assigned to the school was working at another school, of a room without air conditioning, of having to drive students home to get medication. She urged the commissioners to come spend time in the schools to see “the struggles teachers and students are going through,” to see how hard teachers work and to let students and parents tell them what they need.  She emphasized that there is crisis in the schools on virtually a daily basis.

The commissioners will vote on the budget at their next meeting, June 12. Written comments on the budget will be accepted at the county office, 200 High St., until noon Friday, June 8.

###

*

Letters to Editor

  1. Students are the future of our county and our country. Good schools attract educated residents and profitable businesses. Dismissing the concerns about the students because they represent only 10% of the population of the county by Commissioner Pikrum is disturbing. If Kent increased the %age of its budget for education to what the AVERAGE county contributes, this would be approximately $3.1 million more, vastly more than what the teachers and administrators are seeking. If Kent county aspires to be among the top school systems in MD, it can’t achieve this goal by stubbornly holding to a below average school budget.

  2. Phil Ticknor says:

    I wonder why school students represent such a small portion of our population? Could it be because families see the lack of commitment to education on the part of our county government and choose not to live here?

    What defeatist and self-fulfilling reasoning on the part of Pickrum and our commissioners as a whole. We should be embarrassed of ourselves if we re-elect any of them. If they won’t listen to parents or teachers or administrators or the heads of two of our largest employers or members of the economic development commission, who will they listen to?

  3. Francoise Sullivan says:

    I applaud all the teachers, administrators and parents who took the time to attend this meeting and speak passionately about their support for our schools. Instead of listening, really listening, our commissioners chose to make the night about themselves. It’s not about them, it’s about who we are as a community. Are we a community that is willing to stand by and watch as the upward trajectory and successes of our students and schools – 1st in Kindergarten readiness with a high school recognized as one of the top 50 in Maryland – starts to make a downward spiral because of budget cuts that will mean less programming, fewer teachers and fewer resources? Or are we a community that supports our teachers, students and schools and understands that an investment in our schools IS an investment in our entire community?

    The County Commissioners are not scheduled to vote on the budget until Tuesday, June 12. Written comments on the budget will be accepted until Friday, June 8, 2018 at 12:00 p.m. in the Commissioners’ Office or by email at kentcounty@kentgov.org.

    SOS has developed an online letter that you can use and we will deliver the hard copies of the letter to the Commissioners office on Friday by noon. We will also be mailing copies to our representatives and Governor Hogan.

    Please take a moment today, NOW, to send a letter letting our representatives know that you want them to fully fund the FY19 KCPS BOE budget. Then help spread the word!

    https://goo.gl/forms/vvzxgjdCXPwm9enk2

    Thank you.

  4. Gren Whitman says:

    My letter to the Commissioners:

    I have a layman’s grasp of the process that you and your top-notch staff use to develop Kent County’s annual budget. (One spring several years ago, I attended all the afternoon budgeting sessions.)

    Therefore, I have more than just an inkling of how you weigh and assess every department’s request and why you have such a difficult—maybe impossible—task: Compromising on a county budget that cannot satisfy everyone, or every need.

    Your proposed Fiscal 2019 budget, however, is self-described as prioritizing “Economic Development” first and “Education” second. Why?
    Kent County cannot build a successful economic development strategy/program without first guaranteeing that our public school system is fully funded:

    • Even if this means our public schools are allocated more than 38 percent of the total county budget.
    • Even if this means reducing county spending elsewhere.
    • Even if this means raising the county’s property tax.

    Mr. Pickrum likes to observe that the commissioners must represent everyone, and this is true, but it’s also true that the condition of the school system affects everyone.

    If through our county government we taxpayers fully fund basic public services—public education, public safety, and public health—we can be assured that steady and healthy economic development will be a consequent result, and I urge you to fund the school budget at the level requested by the school board.

  5. Phil Ticknor says:

    Are our county’s problems mostly regional or mostly local? You decide. I compared our county with our six closest peninsula neighbors (All information taken from https://datausa.io/ ) …

    Dead last in population growth, change in median household income, and change in median property value – there’s no wonder we have a revenue problem.

    Population Growth
    1) Kent (DE) 1.16%
    2) Queen Anne’s 0.23%
    3) Cecil 0.21%
    4) New Castle 0.04%
    5) Caroline -0.02
    6) Talbot -0.35%
    7) Kent (MD) -0.52%

    Youngest Median Age
    1) Kent (DE) 37.2
    2) New Castle 38.5
    3) Caroline 40.0
    4) Cecil 40.2
    5) Queen Anne’s 43.8
    6) Kent (MD) 46.5
    7) Talbot 49.4

    Growth in Number of Employees
    1) Cecil 1.67%
    2) Kent (MD) 1.29%
    3) Kent (DE) 1.21%
    4) Queen Anne’s 1.13%
    5) Caroline 0.68%
    6) Talbot -0.14%
    7) New Castle -2.82%

    Increase in Median Household Income (Median Household Income in Parenthesis)
    1) Talbot 5.44% ($61.395)
    2) Cecil 2.32% ($67,938)
    3) New Castle 1.54% ($67,274)
    4) Kent (DE) 0.38% ($55,184)
    5) Queen Anne’s -0.08% ($85,891)
    6) Caroline -3.12% ($50,830)
    7) Kent (MD) -5.36% ($55,028)

    Increase in Median Property Value (Median Property Value in Parenthesis)
    1) New Castle 1.54% ($253,000)
    2) Queen Anne’s 1.18% ($343,900)
    3) Talbot 0.31% ($320,500)
    4) Kent (DE) -0.35% ($199,800)
    5) Caroline -0.36% ($192,600)
    6) Cecil -1.24% ($239,900)
    7) Kent (MD) -3.4% ($238,800)

    • Keith Thompson says:

      Just an addition to your numbers…keep in mind that for New Castle County that the growth in the county is happening predominantly in the southern part of the county around the Middletown area (the area nearest Kent County) while the northern part of the county is either stagnant or losing population (especially Wilmington). It also happens that the Appoquinimink School District (which covers most of the southern part of New Castle County) is also considered the best school district in the state. The school system is a part of what is driving the growth and the Appo district faces the exact opposite issue in that the schools are rapidly getting overcrowded requiring the district build new schools. Currently the district is building a brand new high school and middle school just outside of Odessa and a new elementary school north of Middletown and being built from tax dollars raised due to a successful referendum. Once these schools are done, plans are already in the works for more school construction including another high school (which would be the fourth). Also keep in mind, Delaware school districts have their own taxing authority and are not wholly dependent on the counties like in Maryland. This is not to suggest that Kent County emulate the Middletown area (because the two areas are so unlike each other that its impossible) but to highlight the connection with good schools and economic development.

      • Phil Ticknor says:

        Keith – absolutely. One reason I used simple geography was that each of these counties are different and have their own strengths and weaknesses and own approaches. Despite all those differences, we consistently ranked at the bottom in all but one category – often with different “neighbors” in the rankings depending on the category.

  6. Carla Massoni says:

    It was with great distress that I watched the drama unfold at the Kent County Commissioners June 5th meeting on the county budget. The Commissioners decision to dismiss the request for funding put forth by the Board of Education was shortsighted.

    Since 2012, I have been a participant in the Greater Chestertown Initiative. Six years ago, the GCI identified the improvement of our schools as being instrumental to economic growth for Kent County. Attracting young families, recruiting candidates for our businesses, the college and the hospital all hinged on improving our schools. We have seen many successes in the last few years and applaud the efforts of our teachers and administrators as they stepped up to the plate to embrace that goal.

    In a time of voter apathy and lack of civic attention to local politics, I have followed with great interest a group of parents as they embraced their responsibility to fight for their children and provide a voice for those in the community who felt they had no venue. The time and effort they have committed to creating a social media outlet to support their schools resulted in the creation of SOS – Support our Schools. The Support Our Schools (SOS) Initiative is a grassroots advocacy effort devoted to increasing awareness of and support for the needs, challenges, and untapped potential of our public school system—both for the sake of the current student population and for its opportunity to serve as a catalyst for economic development.

    Speaker after speaker spoke passionately about the needs of the schools and implored the Commissioners to support Dr. Couch and the budget she submitted. Passions were running high and several speakers expressed their disappointment with the lack leadership the Commissioners had shown. The County Commissioners used the final moments of the June 5th meeting to single out the SOS members and voice their complaints about the attacks made against them in social media. Their particular complaint was about derogatory language used on several of the FB postings.

    And yet, with all their umbrage, the Commissioners failed to comprehend what these attacks were about. These exasperated parents are fighting for their children – our children – and the economic health of Kent County. The very frustration these parents expressed in their FB postings was often in direct relationship to the condescending and disrespectful manner the Commissioners have shown towards them in meeting after meeting. Our Commissioners used the word “conspiracy” and implied that the language used by a few in FB postings was a reflection on the poor parenting the SOS members must be guilty of in their own homes. It was a very sad state of affairs.

    I encourage all citizens of Kent County to support OUR children. We need leadership in Kent County if we are to survive and thrive. Supporting our schools and our children is the first step. Please make your voices heard. SOS – according to Webster’s – is the international code signal of extreme distress. The voices raised at the KCCC meeting were doing just that issuing “an urgent appeal for help.”

  7. Francoise Sullivan says:

    After doing some quick Googleing I was able to find the following –

    QACPS have a fund balance – page 3 – https://www.qacps.org/cms/lib/MD01001006/Centricity/Domain/30/Approved%20Budget%20Book%206-7-17.pdf

    Cecil County Public Schools have a fund balance – slide 12 https://www.slideshare.net/fkbowman/cecil-county-public-schools-fiscal-2018-budget-introduction

    Worcester County Public Schools have a fund balance – page 6 http://www.worcesterk12.org/UserFiles/Servers/Server_577356/Image/Departments/Finance/Budget%20Documents/Approved%20Operating%20Budget%202017-2018.pdf

    Dorchester County Public Schools have a fund balance – page 4 http://dcps.k12.md.us/jdownloads/Budget/FY2018%20Approved%20Budget%206-15-17.pdf

  8. Ben Tilghman says:

    I am simply mystified that the commissioners don’t recognize that the solutions to nearly all the problems facing Kent Country start with the schools. The schools can’t fix everything, of course, but whether it’s falling population, drug addiction, stagnant business development, falling revenue, or nearly anything else, they are one of the best means of addressing our community’s challenges.

    The rancor of the meeting, and this debate, is unfortunate, but I’d appeal to the commissioners to resist the urge to make decisions out of spite and pride, and instead ensure that they think only about the county’s best interests.

Write a Letter to the Editor on this Article

We encourage readers to offer their point of view on this article by submitting the following form. Editing is sometimes necessary and is done at the discretion of the editorial staff.