Letter to the Editor: Incumbents Reelection Will Not Help Kent County

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I am compelled to add my voice to the conversation regarding Kent County Commissioners and their role in our county’s future. I have little in the way of strong feelings about the selection of candidates challenging the incumbents. I unfortunately cannot say the same about the incumbents.

Our county population is aging and shrinking. A community suffering those demographic shifts cannot last. All of us, but particularly families with young children are underserved by the Commissioners’ governance when it comes to their treatment of the KCPS BOE and their failure to adequately resource the school district. Their nearsighted policies negatively affect property values and economic growth, at the very least. There is an old trope about lunacy being the habit of repeatedly doing a task the same way while expecting different results. It applies to democracy too.

The county projections for income are flat or decreasing. In response, the incumbents voted themselves a 33% raise from 15k to 20k, and reduced their meetings by half. If each commissioner’s meeting runs an average of two hours, and every Commissioner attends every meeting, they are holding down part time jobs at over $400/hr. Nice work if you can get it.

When KCPS consolidation was first becoming a hot-button issue among KC constituents, my wife and a group of other local concerned mothers started SOS, a grass roots advocacy group dedicated to advocating for the needs of KCPS, and disseminating accurate information regarding the district. They were told by the incumbents that there was no foundation for constituents to criticize county policies unless they attended every CC meeting; there was just too much the women couldn’t understand. When SOS proposed the county archive the meetings for constituents that could not attend, they were told the CCs would look into it but it would be prohibitively expensive. SOS simply archived the CC meetings live feed onto a YouTube channel, for reference/transparency as a service to CK citizens. For their efforts they were told they had committed a disservice.

I want to hammer that point home. According to the incumbents there is no valid foundation to criticize their decisions if you don’t attend every CC meeting, nor can the county afford to make an archive of meetings available to educate those that cannot attend. SOS did it for free and the CCs told them it was damaging to the county.

Throughout last year’s budget cycle the Commissioners lauded themselves for paying for the KCHS football field repairs. As recently as the October BOE meeting they were still banging that drum. I firmly hold the opinion that maintaining county infrastructure is one of their primary charges: a minimum requirement of their job, not an instance of exceptional service. Those repairs were done over two years ago. Why are we still hearing about them? I do not think an instance of meeting the minimum requirement two years ago is a strong argument for continued employment.

One of the incumbents is currently campaigning on the claim “Funding to Reach 4th Highest Local Funded School System in Maryland” despite overall school funding decreasing during his tenure. His metric appears to be based on per student spending rather than percentage of county income spent on the school district. Here’s a couple of things about that: by that metric the top five spots in the state are held by the five poorest districts, and the per student formula is largely driven by the variable of low student population, which in turn ensures administrative costs are unduly weighted in the equation. We pay for one Superintendent per 2k students rather than one per 20k. A 70% full building costs as much to maintain as a 95% full building, and there is no such thing as hiring 3/4 of a school nurse. The less students, inevitably the per student costs increase. That metric should be a flashing warning light, not a cause for celebration.

I could go on, but need I? I am gravely disappointed by the incumbents lack of leadership and humility. I cannot recommend their continued employment by the citizens of Kent County.

Piers Heriz-Smith
Millington

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Letters to Editor

  1. Tom Highfield-Clark says:

    Very provocative; that being said, without making this name calling, may I simply inquire…who are the incumbents?

    • Jodi Bortz says:

      Hi Tom, The incumbents are William Pickrum, Ron Fithian, and Billy Short.

      And since I’m writing, I have to say I agree with the letter writer. I am saddened to see people rewriting history to create praise for them. Mr. Heriz-Smith is correct in his assessment that county revenues have been flat, and our population is aging and declining. Many people have stepped up to try to help but they have no interest in the experiences or ideas of anyone who doesn’t parrot back their own narrow view. I’ve been shouted down or insulted each time I’ve stood to address them. Many of their supporters support them precisely because their governance discourages families and young people from staying or moving here. People that don’t want playgrounds obstructing their views or new houses replacing failing structures think they are great. They won’t think about what Kent County can be in 5, 10, 20, 50 years, and they are planning to fail. So they pretend that the commissioners have been supporters of the schools, or are working on our behalf in Annapolis. As someone who has spent some time in Annapolis talking policy with elected officials and their support staff, I can tell you they are not well regarded there. “Can’t County” isn’t just a local phrase.

      We have to do something different. It is time to give someone else a shot.

  2. William Pickrum says:

    This letter is misleading. The percentage of funding allotted to KCPS is not an indicator of support for our school system. With a declining school enrollment, less than 2,000 students, of course, the percentage amount will decrease, while other County responsibilities remain the same or increase.

    The public school system is funded well above the requirements of state law. With a continuing declining enrollment, it is logical that less money would be needed, even factoring in inflation. The county will never let the system run out of money. In fact, the amount of local funding of KCPS has not decreased these past few years.

    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. These are taxpayer dollars being held and not used by the school system that are not available for other County needs.

    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 all county taxpayer dollars.

    The football field at the high school is but one capital expenditure. The Commissioners have consistently provided additional funds to the school system for capital items in addition to their budget requirements. The County’s Information Technology Department has spent many hours supporting our school system at no cost to that system. I could go on and on.

    We installed a video system for live stream the Commissioner’s meeting. It is not necessary for one to physically attend. Openness and transparency are important to an informed citizenry. It is the right of every County citizen to constructively criticize any elected official, and the Commissioners look forward to that input.

    The position of County Commissioner involves much more than attending the Commissioner’s meetings. There are many other obligations that must be and are consistently met.

    For clarity, our meetings, when held weekly, would typically have only enough county business to last about 20 to 45 minutes. It was decided to meet publically at least twice per month and more often when the situation and business dictate.

    • Piers Heriz-Smith says:

      Thank you for your reply. I’m glad you did not dispute the veracity of the facts in my letter, rather the interpretation of the facts.

      Streaming the CC meetings does not an archive make, at all. The CC meeting notes are not illuminating. The manner that Dr Couch and the SOS founders have treated by the Board is shameful. That a colleague of yours has publicly aired some mad conspiracy theory involving SOS being “coached” by persons unknown to achieve their goals is disgraceful. My analysis of per student funding is accurate and I stand by it. As students continue to leave KCPS, the overhead costs per student will contour to rise, causing less and less of each dollar budgeted to education to be actually spent on education. The only way to undo that trend is to attract more students to KCPS, and the only way to do that is by ensuring KCPS district is competitive with surrounding districts.

      The relationship between the Kent County Board of Commissioners and the BOE is poor, at times combative. That unfortunate fact lies at the feet of the County Commissioners. None of us are served by this.

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