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Schools to press county for teacher raises; health costs still unknown

(Feb. 22, 2013) The Worcester County Board of Education will be requesting a $1.5 million increase in its level of funding from the county commissioners for the upcoming budget year, largely to pay for a second round of teacher pay raises to compensate for the salary stagnation that took effect from 2009 to 2012.

The results of the schools systems’ annual parent surveys, and allocation recommendations from individual schools’ parent advisory groups, show “a strong desire to maintain our support for outstanding classroom teachers,” said Superintendent of Schools Dr. Jerry Wilson at this week’s board meeting.

The request will allow the schools to grant step-scale pay raises, based on experience, to eligible staff. In Worcester County, teachers’ pay scales are divided into 16 steps, each equating roughly to one year of experience. After step 16, pay increases cease to be structured. For non-teacher support staff, a 12-step scale is used.

The funding also allows for all school employees – even those who have advanced beyond the step-scale – to receive a one percent cost-of-living raise.

When the worldwide financial crisis hit at the end of 2008, local governments were already into the 2009 fiscal year’s budget, which began that July. For the three budget periods after that – fiscal years 2010, 2011, and 2012 – Worcester County enforced, as did many jurisdictions, a wide-scale pay freeze.

Only in this past fiscal year 2013, whose budget was decided on last spring, did the county grant a $1.2 million allocation for teacher pay increases, although the board had requested $1.9 million. This was largely offset, however, by a drop in per-pupil funding of more than $850,000 for FY13 because of decreased enrollment.

Although quasi-independent from the rest of the county government, Worcester’s school system receives about 80 percent of its revenue from appropriations by the county commissioners, who have final authority over its budget.

Under Maryland law, however, county governments must contribute the same amount of money per-student to their schools each year to cover teaching costs and in-classroom expenditures. This policy is known as the “Maintenance of Effort” formula, and counties face steep cuts in state funding if they go below the established MoE level.

With a marginal increase in enrollment, the county is expected to give a minimum of $23,186 more this year, according to the school system’s Chief Financial Officer Vince Tolbert.

One of the largest variables in the school budget, however, will not be entirely resolved for at least another two months. Employee health insurance rates are expected to rise roughly five percent, which would raise costs by $574,000, according to Tolbert.

“Those rates won’t be finalized until May and they could turn out to be more, could turn out to be less,” Tolbert said.

Last year, the school system saw a windfall savings of $1.3 million after premiums fell 5.8 percent, largely out of good experience credit because fewer school employees filed major insurance claims.

The proposed budget for the 2014 fiscal year also includes a further $400,000 in one-time costs, Tolbert said. Of that, $100,000 is dedicated to conducting a feasibility study for the renovation or reconstruction of Showell Elementary School, which the board has identified as the next priority for major capital improvement after Snow Hill High School, where work is scheduled to begin by the end of this year.

The rest of the one-time costs are for technology improvements, namely upgrading the district’s broadband system, its payroll and finance database, and purchasing tablet computers and “cloud” data servers for classroom use.

Other major financial changes, according to Tolbert, will be a $366,000 increase in county revenue to cover teachers’ pensions – the burden of pension funding was partially shifted this year from the state to the counties – as well as a $417,000 increase in state funding to cover services for special education and students living in poverty. In the latter case, there are more students this year who qualify. The budget also allows for a two percent increase in bus contractors’ rates.

Tolbert is also projecting $703,000 in savings for FY14 over FY13. Much of this is from reduced costs in physical materials such as books and papers, which have been replaced by computers and electronic resources.

But more than half of the savings results from early retirement incentives. The county has encouraged more experienced and costly staff to retire and replaced them with new, lower-earning employees, a point driven home at the end of the meeting, when Assistant Superintendent for Administration Louis Taylor read for the board’s approval the names of several dozen retiring teachers and staff.

“We’ve had a lot of people here [on the departure list] who are veteran employees,” said board President Bob Rothermel. “I do worry about brain drain. But I trust that we’ll be working hard to recruit qualified people … so that we have a whole new stable of beloved teachers 20 or 30 years from now.”

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