Frederick County School Budget : A Tug Of War

With the proposal of Gov. Hogan’s budget comes the local fight of School and County budgets.  In Frederick County the Board of Education is preparing to make its pitch to the County for increased funding.

Frederick’s school budget already starts this year with a cut from Govenor Hogan, estimated to be around $3.3 million from a County School budget potentially around $560 million.

The process starts with the School’s Superintendent’s recommendation to the County’s Board of Education.   From there the BOE will present the County Executive with the proposed budget.

The County is only required at a minimum, to increase funds by Maintenance of Effort (MOE) which equates to around $1 million for FY 2016.  MOE is based on total amount of students.  This means that any additional increases in the proposed School budget must be funded with additional County tax funds or cuts to the current School budget.  The School’s budget is approximately 50% of Frederick County’s tax revenue.

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It is clear to anyone looking at the budget that a $1 million increase is very small for a budget of this size.  The only way to ever increase staff salaries or program funding is purely through cuts, if not funded through other increases.  Total teacher salaries consist of $206 million.  Even at a minimal 3% raise for teachers equates to $6 million.  MOE does not even cover this minimal increase in salaries.

What normally is a typical budget approval process, has been changed with the move from Commissioner governing to Charter government.  This year Frederick’s first County Executive will prepare the budget and then present it to the Council.  The Council can only reduce and delete items from the budget, not increase.  In years past the BOE has had an idea of what the Commissioners were going to approve which allowed them a better idea of what to do.  This year, all bets are off.    Many suspect that Democrat elected County Executive Jan Gardner, will increase funding to the School since the School system has not seen an increase in MOE for many years. However, the Republican majority Council will most likely not grant any increases to MOE.

This year the Superintendent has requested a total of $24.5 million of increased funding.  Roughly half of the funding will go towards teacher salary increases and the other half to “Fixed Charges”.

The School budget is a contentious item because of the way the budget is presented to the public.  Maryland only requires the school to classify the expenses into 15 categories.  The problem is that one of the categories “Fixed  Charges” consist of $180 million (32% of the budget) of  expenses that are not presented except for an excerpt.

Additionally if the County choose to provide increased funding to the School, the County must continually meet that increase year after year.  Due to these two items taxpayers are stuck in a tug of war process, balancing school needs with government spending.

One option that the County has done in the past is to grant a set amount of funding for a specific project, however these types of funds are limited by State law.  This type of funding does not require future guaranteed funding to the School.  With the change to Charter government, this may not be an option this year if County Executive Gardner includes an increase to MOE and not simple flat funding.

The Superintendent and BOE have proposed “cuts” to the proposed budget in the case that the County does not fully fund the budget.  Prominent suggestions to cuts include increasing class size, not fully funding the Other Post Employment Benefits (OPEB), and not fully funding an increase to staff salaries.

It needs to be understood that when suggestions to increase class sizes are brought up, they really mean reducing the amount of teachers at worse or at best no new hires.

Part of the problem lies directly with the teachers union. The BOE can not dictate where salary money goes or which jobs are cut.  The other problem that the teacher union presents, is the timing of negotiations on teacher contracts.  Right now the FY 2016 budget is being argued and the final amount of the budget is unknown.  At the same time the teachers union is negotiation with the BOE for salary increases.  This forces the BOE to negotiate a piece of the pie, when they have no idea how big the pie is.

The School budget is an interesting one because it is at the sole mercy of the County and all the moving parts.  For example the BOE has no say in the pay for teachers.  Whether you are a High School Calculus teacher or an Elementary School Art teacher, you make the same amount assuming experience and credentials being equal.

Additionally Frederick County currently does not have a policy on when to close a school due to low attendance.  Frederick currently has two elementary schools under 175 students, one which is at 102.  The BOE has already addressed the need for a policy and should be coming out with one in the coming months.  These low attendance schools drain the Schools of much needed money.

Finally Charter schools play a role in the budget process.  Currently when a County opens a new Charter school it is not considered a new school at the State level (for funding) so the Charter school’s funds come from the current budget.  This may explain why many in the Teachers Union are opposed to Charter schools.  The State needs to reassess the way they count Charter Schools for funding if Charter Schools are to have a greater impact in education.

Whatever happens in the next month, one thing is for sure.  The mix of a union and two different governing entities makes for a messy budget process.  Frederick County has been operating its Schools budget on a shoestring for many years and needs an increase.


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