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Technology, insurance costs drive tight Worcester school budget

(Feb. 8, 2013) Preliminary budget data from the Worcester County school system indicates that the county will likely be holding the line on education funding, although the system continues to see a number of new costs, as well as savings, from the drive to implement new technology in schools.

Based on the latest estimates of current expenditures, the county schools’ Chief Financial Officer, Vince Tolbert, told the Board of Education this week that he expects the budget for the 2014 fiscal year, which begins this July, to be $1,150,315 higher than FY13.

For the current fiscal year, the schools are presently allotted $92,167,401. This includes, however, a mid-year appropriation of $300,000 granted by the county after the state declined to renew its funding for Worcester’s after-school programs.

“What we’re trying to do is align our actual expenditures from last year with what we’re asking for this year,” Tolbert said.

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 Worcester 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 Tolbert.

However, the MOE formula does not figure in operational costs outside of the classroom. Although most of these costs are stable, one – the price of employee health insurance – has always been a major worry for school finance. In the coming year, Tolbert expects these costs to rise $574,000, consisting of the majority of his projected cost increase for FY14.

Further, the single line item that takes up nearly half of the schools’ operating costs – teacher salaries, roughly $39 million – is not yet set in stone, given that contract negotiations with the Worcester County Teachers’ Association are still ongoing.

The remainder of the current projected increase for next year’s expenditures comes from technology costs, including the installation of broadband service, upgrading “cloud” server computing for teaching and testing, and implementing new finance and payroll software.

Although they come with up-front costs, technology also has back-end savings, which Tolbert projected to be $153,895 in reduced costs for textbooks and classroom consumables.

“Whereas we were buying more textbooks and materials, teachers can now go on the cloud and download that,” Tolbert said.

Although broadband service is most important, at least initially, to transmit state standardized testing data, Superintendent of Schools Dr. Jerry Wilson noted that “the more we expand the use of technology, the more we’ll see the use of that broadband.”

Board member Donnie Shockley asked why no more money was being put towards the installation of “SMART Board” technology – essentially a computer-linked, interactive whiteboard – in the district’s classrooms, a technology initiative that Worcester’s schools began some years ago.

While the boards are now universal in elementary schools, and are also in some renovated rooms in secondary schools, Assistant Superintendent for Instruction Dr. John Gaddis said he would prefer to hold out.

“By the time we’ll do that [have the boards in every room], there’ll be a new technology,” Gaddis said. “You’ll be moving to a system where you’ll have devices in students hands, instead of something they look at in the front of the room, and I’d rather take the money towards that.”

The schools are also planning to ask the county for $100,000 each for two capital improvement initiatives.

One would potentially involve structural changes made on behalf of school safety, such as the installation of buzzer doors or other security measures. Further recommendations in this regard, compiled from audits performed by school committees and local law enforcement agencies, are likely to be presented to the board later this month.

The other would a feasibility study for the expected renovation or reconstruction of Showell Elementary School, which has been identified as the next target for major capital improvement.

“It’s essentially a physical of the school,” said district facilities head Joe Price. “It’ll allow us to determine whether it would be worth it to renovate or build anew.”

Pocomoke High School recently completed major renovations, and the same will be done to Snow Hill High School later this year. County and state funding recently became available for the $41 million project after several years of delay.

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