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The Tentacle


July 9, 2002

Lack Of Knowledge And Understanding Jeopardizes The Future

John W. Ashbury

This fall we will make some of the most important decisions we will ever make when we select four new elected members of The Board of Education of Frederick County and five members of the Board of County Commissioners. It's not an easy task.

Looking over the list of candidates for both positions, and after reading the introductions of each in the local newspapers, it is, however, easy to discern who understands the real problems facing this county when it comes to education.

We cannot continue to fund the school system blindly, which was done by the current commissioners until this year. And when they finally decided to actually question some spending practices of Frederick County Public Schools (FCPS) a spectacle of rare proportions occurred.

Part of the problem was a negotiated pay raise of two percent for the teachers. When the county set the amount it would give FCPS, the Board of Education cut that to 1.5 percent. Howls of protest arose. Daryl Boffman, an appointed board member seeking election, made the only sensible comment when he said that with a $300 million school system budget he found it hard to believe there wasn't enough waste to come up with $500,000, the cost of that additional half percent teacher pay raise.

Note: Remember that no budget officer worth his salt ever builds a budget without some waste. These men and women know that something will be cut, so they build in extras they know they won't get.

The county's budget has increased nearly $100 million while the David Gray-led board has been in office. And it was funded in part by a massive 24-cent per hundred dollar increase in the property tax rate, although the incumbents will tell you it was a great deal less. But remember, the state went from taxation on 40 percent of assessed value to 100 percent taxation on assessed value.

In Fiscal '99, the county gave the Board of Education $112.8 million in direct aid. Next year, FCPS will receive $156.9 million in that category. But we must add capital expenditures in the county budget for school system related item. In Fiscal '99, that was $13.3 million. In Fiscal '03, that figure will increase to $16 million.

Cumulatively, FCPS has received $124,984,699 in additional dollars since Fiscal '99. Add to that the Impact Fee Budget, which shows an additional $17,520,821 for education over the same period of time and you will see a total increase in dollars to education of those four years of $141,505,520.

Now subtract the state mandated Maintenance of Effort, which totals $24,894,940 cumulatively over the four years. The increase in funding by the Gray Board totals $117,610,580, or more than $29 million on average per year. And all of this is above what they were required to fund by state law.

But what do we hear from the Board of Education and the teachers' union. "It's not enough."

Yes, the school system has accepted more that 3,500 new students in that same period of time. There has been a massive school construction budget in place for years. Innovative funding policies for it have been adopted.

However, there is an unintended consequence resulting from the commissioner-adopted increases in impact fees, taxes, and fees in their concerted effort to stop residential growth. During the past four years more building permits for new housing have been issued than were issued during the Boards of County Commissioners headed by Mark Hoke and Ron Sundergill.

Perhaps there will be a decline in building permits during the next four years, but the effect of all the permits issued by the Gray Board will be felt in our community for most of the next decade. Our school system will continue to grow.

Thus far it appears there are no bright ideas on the table from either the Board of Education or county commissioner candidates regarding funding the mandated education that the increased school population will require.

Some will point to the Thornton Commission. The General Assembly voted near its close this year to increase the tax on cigarettes by 34 cents per pack to fund the commission's recommendation. But that will last only for the next two years. Then there will be diminishing returns from this tax as more people opt out of the habit.

The state - according to the most recent analysis by the state's Department of Fiscal Services - is facing a $1 billion deficit in its next budget. How will those elected to the legislature this fall address that problem? Slots at the state's three racetracks? Increased taxes? Cuts in state spending? Who knows!

The teachers' union, the school board and the county commissioners must learn to play together. Surely there will be differences. But union tactics will not serve the citizens of this county well - particularly the school children.

There has to be a better way to run this railroad. Three opposing sides hell-bent on confrontation benefits no one - particularly the taxpayer who is being forced to pay the bills.

So we, as voters, need to ask ourselves if the candidates for county commissioner or those for the school board really understand what is at stake. Once we make that determination, we can cast informed votes. But the likelihood is that several people will be elected to these positions who have no earthly idea that the future is in jeopardy.



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