Kent’s fiscal 2020 school budget has for another year brought a wave of concern from parents and teachers over programming, salaries and staff levels — as an $850,000 budget increase over last year fell short of $1.6 million requested by Kent School Superintendent Karen Couch and the school board.
The county’s fiscal 2020 budget came in $2.2 million over last year at $50 million. A little over $18 million will go to the school system.
Couch acknowledged that the commissioners took “great pains” in drafting the final budget.
“I know you try to do what’s best for the school system,” Couch said shortly after Kent Chief Financial Officer Pat Merritt presented a breakdown of the fiscal 2020 budget at Tuesday’s commissioners meeting.
Couch said salary increases are a priority in her new budget, targeted at 3 percent.
The additional $1.6 million funding request was made as enrollment has declined by another 70 students this year.
Kent’s school population began to slide in the 70s, dwindling from 1,350 to 530 just at the high school. The downward trend in enrollment also forced the school district in 2017 to consolidate five elementary schools to three.
The additional $850,000 is 5 percent over last year and translates to $1.1 million over Maintenance of Effort because of declining enrollment. The new funding level can never be decreased because school districts are prohibited under MOE from spending less per student than the previous year.
Commissioners say ‘no’ on Property Tax Hike for School Funding
A point of contention in the budget discussions was whether the commissioners would increase property taxes to meet the additional $1.6 million funding request.
Commissioner President Tom Mason said a property tax increase would add more burdens on residents already struggling to avoid tax sale.
“We just can’t put more burdens on our citizens by raising the property tax.” He said the burdens were evident in Kent’s 247 properties that went to tax sale this year.
Kent’s property tax rate is currently second on the Eastern Shore and seventh in the state.
Mason was hopeful that raising the county’s income tax this year from 2.85 to 3.2 percent would open the door for more state funding. The 3.2 percent increase is the maximum allowed by statute.
Maxing out the county income tax changes the formula for state aid in an upward direction.
Cerino Calls Foul Tying School Budget to Tax Differential
For the past five years the Town of Chestertown has pressed the commissioners for a rebate on property taxes residents pay to the county for services it doesn’t receive, like police, road maintenance and planning and zoning, which the town pays out of its own budget – AKA the tax differential.
Town officials have called the lack of a differential a form of double taxation, since every county on the Shore except Kent returns property tax revenue to incorporated areas that pay for their own public services.
In April the commissioners made a “placeholder” in the budget to return $100,000 to Chestertown but instead diverted that money to schools, Mason said at Tuesday’s meeting.
This drew the ire of Chestertown Mayor Chris Cerino, who said the poorest counties on the Shore manage to pay a differential to its municipalities while funding their school systems.
“Counties figured out a way to compensate [their towns] fiscally for the inequities,” Cerino said.
He pointed to Somerset County, the poorest in the state, which sends $196,000 differential back to the town of Crisfield.
Cerino then named a dozen or more towns that get similar compensation.
“We fund our own police department; we fund our own street crews,” he said. “When there’s a call for criminal activity it’s not a sheriff’s officer that shows up at my door, it’s a Chestertown police officer…we are paying for phantom services.”
A 5-cent tax differential to Chestertown would be the lowest in the state.
SOS, Citizens Ask For Efficiency Study to Fully Fund $1.6 Million Request
Francoise Sullivan, a founding member of Save Our Schools, a group in Kent that advocates more program funding and better teacher pay, said the commissioners should find more efficiencies in the general budget.
“I still believe that there is a path for fully funding our schools and that an efficiency study would be the best way to show where adjustments can be made to the budget process,” she told the commissioners. “The county has been dealing with flat revenue for several years and I believe that we have more flat revenue in our future. It is past time to re-evaluate and prioritize the budget.”
Robbi Behr, another founding member of SOS echoed Sullivan that an efficiency study is needed if the commissioners are unwilling to raise taxes.
She said SOS made findings in the general budget where “different departments were allotted more money than they were using.”
“Our solution is to allot the departments money they’ve historically used. That would leave plenty of room to fund the school budget,” she said. “I would actually encourage you to fund an efficiency study.”
David Sobers of Chestertown recommended a blue ribbon commission to study the county budget. He said that Kent’s allocation to schools was under the national average of 40 to 50 percent.
Kent currently funds at 38 percent.
But Commissioner Ron Fithian said after the meeting that Kent was unique with its tiny school system and a growing demographic shift to an older population where money has shifted to pay for emergency services once covered by an all volunteer force.
He said since 1994 the emergency services budget has climbed from almost zero to $1.7 million and noted that the dwindling younger population was making it harder to staff volunteer positions like paramedics.
“We have to take care of our elderly and our youth and we’re trying to make it work for both,” he said.