Decreased revenue as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic has Kent County officials weighing whether or not to seek a waiver from state mandated funding levels for public schools.
The Kent County Commissioners heard the annual budget presentation from the school system during Tuesday morning’s meeting.
But before hearing from Karen Couch, the county’s school superintendent, commissioners outlined funding concerns for next year’s budget.
“With our finances and what we’re projecting, I don’t know where we’re coming from with this budget,” Commission President Tom Mason said. “We’re looking at a 25 to 30 percent decrease in our income tax income, which could be a $3 to 4 million deficit to the county.
“We’ve asked all of our other departments — it’s a flat budget…. We have no salary increases for the county, no new positions, no promotions, we’ve funded (below) FY2020…. We’re very interested in wanting to hear what you say but … I’ll just be honest with you, I don’t see how it’s going to happen,” he said.
“We know we have to fund the maintenance of effort,” Mason said, “even though we are considering asking a deferral on that from the state. And I would hope that if we do that the Board of Education and you as the superintendent would support that and would sign that request.
“We have not decided whether we’re going to do that yet, but it is certainly something we are considering and I believe probably other counties are going to be considering it,” he said. “It would be irresponsible on our part to ask the citizens of Kent County to … they’re already sacrificing and this would be more sacrifice.”
Commissioner Ron Fithian said county businesses are losing tens of thousands of dollars monthly during the closure of non-essential businesses ordered by Gov. Larry Hogan.
“It’s a troubling time,” Fithian said. “We’re going to do the best we can as we move forward, but we don’t know what’s around the next corner.…
“We haven’t got a clue what we’re going to end up with, there’s just too many unanswered questions,” he said. “You don’t even know today when you’re going to go back to school, when our kids are going to go back to school, let alone when the businesses are going to open up.”
The school board has proposed a $29 million budget for Fiscal Year 2021, about $1 million more than this year’s budget. Most of that increase is being sought from county taxpayers and is driven by state funding formulas.
To comply with state maintenance of effort requirements, Kent County would have to provide an additional $510,665 to county schools next year. Another provision, an escalator in state law for those counties whose school spending is below the state average, requires a 2.5 percent increase over current funding, for an additional $515,536.
State funding is projected to increase $130,439 overall, after a reduction of $177,081 for declining enrollment assistance.
Nearly $700,000 of the additional funding would go toward salary increases and new positions, and higher insurance costs, according to the budget proposed by the school board.
The school system is looking to add 3.5 positions for a total cost of $150,000, much of that for a special education teacher at Kent County Middle School. The state’s higher minimum wage accounts for $40,000 of the total salary increase.
Other requests include $50,000 to buy a used bus, $50,000 for school furniture, $30,000 for the lease/purchase of two new buses, $30,000 for the Kent Blended Learning Academy, and $18,500 for the Kent County Middle School athletics fields.
In broad categories, which is how the county commissioners approve the school budget, there would be the following increases or decreases:
• Instruction: $456,292 increase; $390,792 for salary, the remainder for equipment, supplies, materials, and contracted services
• Fixed charges: $391,824 increase
• Special education: $115,380 increase in salary, including $90,000 for the new middle school position
• Administration: $79,807 increase in salary
• Student personnel services: $76,331 increase in salary
• Health services: $17,000 increase in contracted services
• Mid-level administration: $7,529 increase in salary
• Plant maintenance: $1,070 increase in salary
• Transportation: $52,629 total decrease; with $143,324 cut from salaries, but additional spending of $50,000 for equipment, $30,000 for other charges, and $10,695 for contracted services
• Plant operation: $4,244 decrease in salary