The Kent County Commissioners, meeting Tuesday, June 12, passed the FY 2019 county budget by a unanimous vote.
There was no discussion before the vote, and there were no adjustments to the budget as presented at the previous week’s meeting, despite considerable public criticism of the allocation for public education – both at the June 5 meeting and in 93 pages of written comments submitted to the commissioners. The budget leaves the county’s property tax rate unchanged at $1.022 per $100 of assessed value. The income tax rate is 2.85 percent, also unchanged from last year.
At the end of the meeting, when the commissioners opened the floor for public comment, several audience members came forward to express their disappointment that the budget fell short of the school district’s request for funding.
First to speak was Robbi Behr of Chestertown, representing the Support Our Schools group. She began by addressing remarks by Commissioner Ron Fithian at the June 5 meeting, when he stated that the SOS group’s efforts had been choreographed by some outside group, and implied that the mothers who organized the group didn’t have the skills to organize a FaceBook campaign. Behr summarized the credentials of the founding group, who are “smart and capable women who can do these sorts of things all by ourselves.” She also addressed Commissioner Billy Short’s characterization of the group as “rude” after she and some others walked out of the June 5 meeting and for allowing “a censored swear word” to appear on their FaceBook page.
Behr apologized, saying, “We were rude. But we’ve been hammering at this for two years and your response has consistently been and continues to be that we’re too stupid to understand this stuff so we need to sit down and be quiet.” She said that misogyny frequently characterizes the commissioners’ remarks. However, she said, the focus should be on “addressing the myriad problems this county has at hand, from flat-lining revenues to the opioid crisis to the hospital to emergency services and so on.” If the commissioners had listened to the SOS group’s ideas about marketing the county and its schools to families and serving the families who are already here, “We wouldn’t be here wasting everyone’s time,” she said. “We would be working together, doing good for this county.”
Behr noted that none of the commissioners had, “as far as I can tell,” responded to Rock Hall Elementary School Principal Kris Hemstetter’s plea for them to visit the school and see the problems for themselves. She said the commissioners should take up the challenge and visit all the county’s schools and see the ways they could help the teachers and administrators improve them. “It’s too late to revisit your budget now, but it’s not too late to actually support our teachers and schools,” she said.
Commission President William Pickrum responded to Behr, correcting her statement that he doesn’t use FaceBook and noting that he is professionally involved with internet and IT. He said he had offered Behr the opportunity to review and make suggestions on the whole county budget. “Every citizen has that opportunity,” he said. He said the commissioners struggle every year “to balance the needs and desires of the citizens of this jurisdiction.” Government, unlike business, exists to deliver services to its citizens, not out to make a profit. He said the county had been unable to meet the requests of many of the nongovernmental organizations that asked for funding this year. Pickrum noted that the county roads were considered by the State Highway Administration to be some of the best in the state, even though the county lost some 90 percent of its funding for road maintenance. “We do the best we know how, we do listen,” he said. He cited examples of the county adopting ideas from other jurisdictions to improve services and efficiency. He said the commissioners are here to try to satisfy everyone, “but because of the financial realities, that may not be possible.”
Carla Massoni of the Greater Chestertown Initiative distributed copies of a Baltimore Sun article, “Education Status Quo Unacceptable in Maryland,” which summarizes the conclusions of the Thornton Commmission and the Kirwan Commission, both of which addressed the condition of Maryland’s schools. Massoni said it was time to “move on,” with the budget set for the next fiscal year and SOS intent on continuing its efforts on behalf of the school system. She cited a speech by Trish McGee, president of the Board of Education, saying that the board will continue to work to make the schools successful, and praised Superintendent of Education Karen Couch for “giving her all.”
“There are some things I think we can do,” Massoni said. She noted that the article she distributed encouraged people to reach out to gubernatorial candidates to see if they commit to support the recommendations of the Kirwan Commission. She asked the commissioners “to take a leadership role in making Kent County schools the best schools in the state of Maryland.” She said it would require them to take an active role in the state, using their influence and connections to push state officials into fuller support for local schools. “There is a great deal you can do to take a leadership role,” she said, encouraging them to “share the story” of what county schools have accomplished and what they still need to reach their potential.
Darran Tilghman of Chestertown asked the commissioners to try to harness the energy the community had shown in support of the schools. She asked them to be reasonable, for example in resisting the temptation to accuse the schools of “playing a shell game” with their funding. She said the commissioners need to take ownership of the fact that the county’s contribution to the education budget is among the lowest in the state, measured as a percentage of the overall budget. And she asked them to visit the schools to have a clearer idea what the needs are. “Please let’s keep talking, let’s keep moving forward,” she concluded.
Jennnifer Baker, president of the Downtown Chestertown Association, said she had attended the Board of Education meeting the previous evening, where she learned “just how desperate the situation is over the next several years.” She said it’s necessary to start planning aggressively to bring the schools up to potential. She said businesses in the county are having trouble finding qualified staff, which affects the likelihood that other new businesses will locate here. To attract “the next Dixon and LaMotte,” she said, the county needs to think about how it markets and recruits new businesses. She said her decision to locate to Chestertown and open a business here was a result of the town’s having a comprehensive strategy and plan to attract businesses. “It had strategies that let us know that it was working really hard at being something incredibly great.” She said the county has similar assets, and with a coordinated effort it ought to be able to take the next step.
Pickrum thanked everyone for their comments. He said the commissioners had always worked to make the county the best it can be. He said when he is in other areas, he always praised the Kent County school system as “the best not only in Maryland but on the East Coast.” He said citizens sometimes misinterpret the commissioners’ questions of the schools as hostile, whereas it is a necessary part of governing. “We have to look at things with a critical eye. It does not mean that any one of us is opposed to that entity. But we have to ask those critical questions to ensure that your dollars – and my dollars, too – are spent appropriately by every particular governmental organization.” He said he believes that the county’s educational staff is the best around, and expressed the wish that they were better paid. “I think it’s a shame that we do not value, as a society, our educators,” noting that many teachers have to pay for classroom supplies out of their own pockets and that they work many hours after school. “But that said, it is incumbent upon our elected school board to allocate the funds they have available to get the best bang for the buck,” he said. “Personally, I think you pay the people first – but that’s not my job. That’s the school board’s job.”