Greater Chestertown Initiative Questions for County Commissioner Candidates: Public Schools

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Editor’s Note: The Greater Chestertown Initiative worked this summer on a series of questions for the candidates running for one of three Kent County Commissioners to be elected in November. Over the next four weeks, the Spy will share the candidates responses to one of those questions every Monday.

Public Schools

What are you willing to do to make the Kent County Schools the best in the State of Maryland?

Are you committed to budgeting the resources our schools need including:
Competitive teacher salaries,
Pre-school education for our 3 year olds, and
Social workers to support our young people dealing with crises

What will you do to help reverse the perception that our schools are not successful in the face of data that shows otherwise?

How will you market our schools to demonstrate their successes?

Ron Fithian

I’ve served on five different boards and I don’t think that there’s been a board I’ve sewed on that’s done more for education in Kent County than the one I’m sitting on right now. There’s a group called Maryland State Education Association who just put out a political ad. What they’re attempting to do is
to highlight the per pupil contribution from each of the 24 Jurisdictions while showing that Queen Anne’s is ranked in 22nd place. The group is saying, “Look here to see how little our county commissioners value our kids.” It says, “Our kids deserve better”.

Then if you turn the thing over, it’s got all five of the commissioner’s pictures on the front of this thing, and it says, “The county commissioner’s policies are failing our kids. Call the county commissioners and tell them our kids deserve better.” On the other side of it they have the top five counties, and it says, ”These Maryland counties value their students the most.” And they have in great big black letters highlighted, Worcester’s first, Somerset’s second, Baltimore’s third, KENT COUNTY fourth, and Montgomery is fifth. And it says, “These Maryland counties VALUE their students the most. How this group can brag on us while a local group can say we don’t do enough is puzzling to me.

And then let me also say that three years ago, we gave the board of education $758,000 that was to go directly to salaries. It was to be used for nothing but salaries and they did just that. That contribution three years ago was the largest amount of money ever put toward salaries in the history of Kent County. The very next year was the year that we consolidated the schools and we did away with Millington and Worton. It was about a $1,000,000 savings in doing that. Out of that million dollars, they used $900,000 for salaries and benefits, again one of the largest contributions to teachers salaries and benefits in the history of Kent County. So out of the last three years, two of them were record breaking amounts of money that went to teacher salaries.

And then another thing that gets overlooked all the time is this fiber internet service that we’ve got throughout the county. I don’t care who the next commissioners are, there will never be a project that as far as I’m concerned will do more for people of Kent County and the students of Kent County than
that fiber project. I’m not sure it’s appreciated as much as it deserves to be. What that project is going to do is make sure that every kid has the ability to not only be able to use the internet in school, but to go home with their laptop or whatever it is and study, look into the future, and have all their questions answered by researching. They have the ability to do much more than any of the kids in the surrounding counties because the others don’t have this. This means that even the poorest of poor children that will never have internet hooked to their house will have sixty places throughout the
county where they can go and receive FREE internet. Places like Worton Park, Worton Community Center, all the firehouses, all the parks, Main Street of Rock Hall, Fountain Park of Chestertown and many more. To me, that’s enormous.

One question asked is how will you market our public schools. I would think the combination of our fibre, the endorsement of the Maryland State Education Association and two years of record breaking salary increases for our teachers would be a good place to start.

Our IT department was summoned to Capitol Hill. Scott Boon was summoned to Capitol Hill to talk to the Congressional Internet Caucus because little Kent County has done something exceptional. Billy Short and I went over with them and sat in the audience and listened to the testimony. And the reason for having them come over there was because Kent County has done something that probably hundreds and thousands of towns would love to be able to duplicate. And their question was how was little ole Kent County able to do something most of the states in the United States couldn’t think of.

It’s really something that Kent County can be proud of and those of us who were involved in it. That is a marketing tool. There’s a lot of positive things to talk about in Kent County, IF we choose to be positive!

Bob Jacobs

There are two big Economic drivers in this county and the school system is one of them. Economic development as I stated above only helps the revenue of the county if people live here. If we have great schools people live here and pay income tax and property tax. Education is a way of fixing our budget woes, not adding to them. If we don’t continue to make our schools better and continue in fixing the perception of our public schools, we will continue to lose families to Queen Anne’s county. With the county revenue only growing 5% in the last five years it would be important to work with the school system on ways to making our schools better.

I was always told good schools starts and end with discipline. Yes, I would fund the additional funding for additional councilors if needed. Kent county seems to have a few kids like all schools that can be disruptive and cause issues in the classroom. You can’t just give up on those few kids. It is not their fought that they may have challenges at home or other types of issues. The problem is without any additional revenue from the county the school budget is expected to be over a million dollars in debt by 2020 which means the county would have to fund that. The county had approx. 10 million funding balance last year, which is down to approx. 3 million due to the fiber project.

Kent County has a very bad hand dealt to them by the state of Maryland. We pay a much higher percentage of the cost per student than other counties because we are deemed a rich county even though 60 percent of our kids are on free or reduced lunch. We can’t change the bad hand we have been dealt by the state, but we can’t give up. Mathematically the way to fix the school funding issue is to add population to our school. Continued improvement of our school system, coupled with new and growing businesses is key to increasing new families to Kent County. Trying to balance the school budget and county budget by allowing our schools to shrink and population to remain stagnant is the much harder recourse. If you were to get in a downward spiral it will cost a lot more to get out of it. According to the latest info I have seen on population I think our population has trended backward.

Tom Mason

The public school system is of utmost concern to all the citizens of Kent County.  I want to see more cooperation between the county commissioners and the local school board and administration on budget issues before the budget process so government and schools can understand what is needed and what funds are available.  I would like to see a publication that profiles graduates of Kent County Public Schools that have done well in their chosen vocations. This information should be given to all realtors and distributed to prospective home buyers in Kent County.

My children are products of Kent County Public Schools and I have a grandchild now attending, so I want our schools to be adequately funded to provide for all their educational needs.  If we introduce business growth, which will then bring new families, we will have more tax revenue to assist in funding our schools.

I will also explore and advocate through our school administration and state lawmakers the possibility of receiving additional funding from the state to help the schools.

William Pickrum

What are you willing to do to make Kent County Public Schools the best in the State of Maryland?

I consider the Kent County Public Schools already the best in the Maryland. Time and time again, our system is held up as a model for other school systems in the state. As reported one the front page of the June 14, 2018 edition of the Kent County News, I was recognized for declaring the I’m “unafraid to declare Kent County Public Schools the best on the East Coast.” There is always room for improvement. That improvement can come about through allowing our system, and all school systems, to be more independent. Our school board is aware of what the citizens of their want out of their school system, and I support them.

Are you committed to budgeting the resources our public schools need? Including: Competitive teacher salaries Pre-school education for all three-year-old children Social workers to support our young people dealing with crises.

The school system’s budget is developed from the programming of our public school system. This is the legal responsibility of the Kent County Public School Board. Specific programs are not under the Commissioner’s authority. The County Commissioners financially support the public school system and are responsible for protecting county taxpayer dollars.

County Commissioners may only provide funding in the legally required 11 categories.

Administration
Mi-Level Administration
Instruction
Special Education
Student Personnel Services
Health Services
Transportation
Operation of Plant
Maintenance of Plant
Fixed Charges
Capital Outlay

Staff salaries are only negotiated by the school board with the school superintendent. Labor contracts are only seen and reviewed by the school board. The Commissioners are not part of this process and have no legal authority or responsibility. The school board can allocate the available funds as they see fit. Most organizations look at paying their people first. The statement that County teachers are 23rd out of 24 jurisdictions does not tell the true picture. The starting salaries are only at this level. The overall salary schedule could be adjusted with consent of the labor organizations to be at any level the school board desires.

During my tenure, Kent County Commissioners have consistently provided well above the State mandated Maintenance of Effort. Many of the capital projects desired by the school system are funded directly by the Commissioners. I have always supported provision of funds to cover these expenses. This has included providing tablet devices to all Kent County Public School children, providing parking space for system buses, maintaining the grounds, assisting with the internet service to all schools, etc. These costs are not borne by the school system and do not add to the Maintenance of Effort thresholds.

Kent County Public Schools were ranked 6th out of 24 jurisdictions in revenue per pupil in the local funding for schools in Fiscal Year 2017 according to the Department of Legislative Services. We were 4th highest in the State in FY2016. Therefore, regardless of having the smallest system, we spend far more per pupil than most school districts.

The public school system has, for the past 15 years, under spent their budget. This leaves an ever-growing budget surplus (fund balance). The school system has desired to have a fund balance of $500,000. Considering that, it is determined what funds are available above that $500,000. These are taxpayer dollars that are not available for other County needs.

Not all counties in Maryland allow their school systems to maintain fund balances. This is not a state requirement. These are taxpayer monies. Keeping a “slush” fund in the school system is not reasonable at the same time as asking for more taxpayer money. The County is the funder for all County governmental units and will use whatever funds that are available to keep these units’ solvent. If a unit need for more money are not available from county funds, only the Commissioners may borrow the necessary funds.

The school system’s budget has well over $1 million in excess funds. This is enough to fund almost any program the school board desires. This is taxpayer money that is being stockpiled. If the school systems need additional funds, the Commissioners are readily available to meet the need. In fact, any budget adjustments that the school system desires must ultimately be approved by the Commissioners. It is not necessary for the school system to have a fund balance. No other county government unit has a fund balance.

To increase available revenue for the county would require raising primarily property taxes. These taxes are regressive. Some residents can pay higher taxes, but many cannot. The county has each year several properties up for tax sale. Higher property taxes would make the situation worse. The Commissioners have a responsibility for protecting taxpayer dollars. The school system does not have taxing or borrowing authority.

There are under 2,000 children in our school system. Approximately, 1/3 of our under 20,000 citizens are over the age of 60. Yet, over $17 million is allocated to education and only $28,000 to senior services.

What will you do to help reverse the perception that our public schools are not successful in the face of data that shows otherwise?

I have consistently touted the quality of our education system and its staff. The school system must aggressively promote the quality of our education before all of our local organizations, real estate agents, church groups, political organizations, etc. Along with the Commissioners, every publication, where appropriate, must promote the quality of our system. Our website should say we have a top ranked system.

How will you market our public schools to demonstrate their successes?

As stated above, touting our successes at every opportunity and venue should be a must. This must be a collective effort by all.

William Short

Kent County Public Schools have achieved great things since the arrival of Dr. Couch. While the Commissioners fund 56.5% of the Kent County Public Schools operating budget the County Commissioners do not have oversight or authority regarding the allocation and specific use of those funds. The County Commissioners have to rely on the power and authority of The Board of Education to manage and ensure appropriate use of all available funds. I have talked encouragement for years on the future of our school system. At the end of the day words only travel so far, I am eager to see the continued process of the school system through increased academic scoring and state rankings.

When Kent County Public Schools become top rated in the State current and perspective residents will have a clear depiction that the Kent County Public School system is a great place to raise their children.  Under the current funding formula created through the Thornton Commission public schools are funded on a per pupil basis. It is imperative that the Board of Education and the school system as a whole work to reduce the increasing exodus of out of school placement. If out of school placement enrollment was eliminated the school system would receive approximately $5.6 million of increased funding. While the County budget has been tight, with little revenue growth in past years, I have worked diligently to find funds to continually provide the public school system with funding above the required Maintenance of Effort.

The County not only funds recurring operating costs covered under Maintenance of Effort it also funds nonrecurring costs each year and capital projects. The school system and the County have worked well to provide benefits to each other through in kind services and reduced fees. Increased sharing of resources between the County and the school system will provide even greater benefits to both parties. Vehicle maintenance, storage, office space, information technology, finance, and purchasing are just a few areas where increased collaboration needs to be explored.

Tom Timberman

The Kent County Public School System has four basic problems, none of which have diminished the entrepreneurial spirit of the administrators and teachers.  They have delivered best-in-state programs. However, that being said, these four realities reduce County funds available to support the school system: (1) County revenues are static; (2) County population is declining; (3) County population is aging and the number of children in the school system shrinks every year (lost 1/3 of student body since 2008) and (4) Maryland’s formula for distributing public education financial support to counties is based on two elements that hurt Kent County: (1) size of student population and (2) “Wealth per Student”.

The Wealth-per-Student number is arrived at by dividing the county’s property tax revenue by the number of students.  There are a number of valuable water-front homes, whose owners pay high property taxes. Given the dwindling number of students, the wealth per student continues to rise.  Other Eastern Shore counties share the same problem.

This implied finding is at odds with the reality of the County’s income disparities. Fifteen percent of the population is at or under the poverty line; Kent’s median income is $20,000 lower than the state’s and 58% of the students in the middle school qualify for free lunches.

Our representatives in the State legislature need to press hard to change the formula.

An initiative I’m pursuing to establish an academy of advanced technical skills in Kent County is aimed at keeping young people here and attracting others.  The curriculum will focus on 21st Century technologies, e.g. robotics, artificial intelligence and cyber security etc.  All are in high demand.

There is no easy, short-term solution to the underlying challenges affecting Kent’s Public School System.  A friend told me about a plan to attract large sums of money from major education foundations, to use Kent’s public schools as laboratories to test cutting edge programs.   It is also essential we recruit new employers create jobs, pay taxes and whose younger staff will help grow the student population.

This is not one problem it is a complex of interacting problems that need to be addressed as a whole.  To do this effectively, will require introducing a much closer working relationship among all those involved: County and town governments, the school board, the parents, the budget specialists, the business and economic expansion experts, to work on a strategic plan incorporating all the interwoven issues and their possible solutions.  

 

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Letters to Editor

  1. Are these answers presented exactly as they were written by the candidates? When it comes to a discussion about education, the numerous typos and grammatical errors are particularly galling.

  2. Phil Ticknor says:

    Commissioner Fithian seems to have very little to say about this situation other than to spend paragraph after paragraph defensively singing his own praises and to try to take us on a fiber tangent. Oh, and also to basically blame the teachers for being greedy(?!), I guess.

    Bob Jacob absolutely understands that education investment and reputation is an economic driver – one that is nearly without parallel. Bob has unabashedly run his campaign on adding a significant number of families to our population – an effort I whole-heartedly agree with – and knows that such a situation is self-sustaining: invest in schools to help draw those families, those families add into the tax base and school enrollment, school funding, in turn, continues to rise. He has had my vote since the primaries.

    I appreciate Tom Mason’s connection’s to our school system through this kids and grandchild and applaud his pride in our system’s graduates, but I did not find much depth to his answers.

    Commissioner Pickrum, once again, shows that he doesn’t seem to see education spending as anything more than spending on a specific age group. He totally misses the point that Bob Jacob so well understands – that investing in education is an investment in the county’s future – not simply in the future of those kids but in drawing homeowning families into the county (and, thus, into the tax base). “There are under 2,000 children in our school system. Approximately, 1/3 of our under 20,000 citizens are over the age of 60. Yet, over $17 million is allocated to education and only $28,000 to senior services.” That quote illustrates his clear lack of understanding on this issue or, quite possibly, is simply pandering to a voting block that he thinks will help get him re-elected. He has, in the past, publicly intimated that our county’s future is simply that of a retirement community. If you’re fine with that, by all means, vote for him. If you don’t think that’s a good (or even viable) way forward for us, maybe think twice … Furthermore, he can’t seem to see the forest through the trees since he seems to think the only way to raise revenue is by raising property tax rates. Nope. Add to your revenue base by drawing in more homeowners (see Bob Jacob’s plan) and investing in ways that raise property values. Not many people like paying more in property taxes, but they’d much rather pay more because their property value went up than if their rate went up.

    Commissioner Short was politically wise to avoid the finger-pointing and defensiveness of his fellow commissioners, but this is the second time I have heard him bring up a point that I feel is a little odd: “It is imperative that the Board of Education and the school system as a whole work to reduce the increasing exodus of out of school placement. If out of school placement enrollment was eliminated the school system would receive approximately $5.6 million of increased funding.” This statement does nothing to address one of the causes of our budget woes – the county’s revenue problem.

    Tom Timberman seems to have a good handle on the complexities of these issues and I’m interested in his idea of a focus on 21st Century technologies – I feel like at the high school, especailly, this could be pretty easily achieved through some modifications to the CTE program. Like several of the other candidates, Timberman mentions the flaws in the state funding formula that define our county as “wealthy” – he goes into more detail as to why that is. I am intrigued enough to cast a vote Timberman’s way. What I would love to hear more about from ALL of the candidates is how they might go about lobbying the state for those reforms. Right now, grassroots organizations (specifically the one that Commissioner Fithian seems to have such distaste for) seem to be doing all of the heavy lifting in that area.

  3. Francoise Sullivan says:

    “…three years ago, we gave the board of education $758,000 that was to go directly to salaries. ”

    In February 2015 Dr. Couch requested $765,857 to cover the expected revenue shortfall for the upcoming fiscal year; an additional $768,000 for three missed step increases in staff pay; and $70,000 for new student laptops. The County Commissioners voted unanimously to give the BOE the full amount totaling $1.6 million. After the vote the BOE decided to hold off on consolidating the elementary schools and the deadline (April 30) to file for consolidation with the State came and went.

    On May 24, 2015 the County Commissioners sent a letter to Dr. Couch stating that because the BOE had a fund balance that they considered excessive they would only be giving the BOE an additional $233,857 and not the originally stated amount of $1.6 million. They would still give the one-time $70k for laptops. The BOE used their one-time only available funds in the fund balance to cover the teacher salaries and the budget shortfall.

    You can read more about this in Dan Divillo’s article in the KCN from June 2 2016 entitled “School Funding: How we got here” https://www.myeasternshoremd.com/news/kent_county/article_75e8f057-4cb5-5820-a7aa-7e25bf9e71d3.html

  4. Gail Regester says:

    I sure hope that the many errors I see in the English used by many of these candidates are typos, and not an example of our education system.

  5. Mike Peterson says:

    How does this work?

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