ELKTON — Cecil County Public Schools is asking the county for an additional $3.8 million, or a 4.6% increase, in next year’s budget request as the school system navigates declining student enrollment and staff numbers alongside an uptick in the number of special education students and English language learners.

CCPS is seeking $208.5 million for Fiscal Year 2021 — an overall increase of $9.7 million, or 4.9%. Of that $9.7 million increase, CCPS is asking county government for $3.8 million.

While presenting the Fiscal Year 2021 budget proposal to the Board of Education on Wednesday, Superintendent Jeff Lawson said the school system is hoping to maintain their current quality of service with increased funding next fiscal year.

“We believe what you will see is a budget proposal that provides the same level of service for next year that is currently being delivered for this year,” he said.

‘Unique learners’

Since 2009, student enrollment has declined by 954 students, a 5.8% decrease. CCPS also has 139 fewer positions than it had 11 years ago, a 6.4% reduction.

But in that same 11-year period, the number of special education students has risen by 222, a 10.3% increase. CCPS’s population of English Language Learner students, those for whom English is not their first language, has increased by 224 students, a 224% increase since 2009.

With growth among student demographics that Lawson refers to as “unique learners,” the superintendent acknowledged that CCPS will need increased funding for services that aid those students.

“Certainly no school system looks to lay budget woes at the feet of any child, but we know for sure that students with disabilities simply are more expensive to serve,” he said, specifically talking about students in special education programs.

CCPS is looking to increase funding for special education services by almost $1.6 million, a 29.8% increase.

According to Lawson, of the special education related service providers working in the school system, 60% are CCPS employees while the remaining 40% are contracted through an outside vendor simply because Cecil County is not able to attract enough providers of their own to keep up with the service demand in the county.

Such providers include speech therapists, occupational therapists and physical therapists. For contract workers in those fields, Lawson said the school system is paying each provider around $75 to $100 per hour.

Lawson is optimistic that CCPS will be able to continue full-day pre-K next school year, a program that began this year with the support of several school employees who pointed to it as a way to narrow the achievement gap.

But with the pre-K comes added costs, according to Associate Superintendent for Education Services Carolyn Teigland.

“We’ve seen an increase in the need for speech language pathologists in particular this year due to the full-day pre-kindergarten program because those children were receiving services in preschool two half-days a week last year and now have come to us five days a week for full-day service and they need increased hours,” she said.

The National Association of School Psychologists recommends that schools have one school psychologist for every 700 students.

CCPS has just fewer than 15,300 students, which would equate to about 21 school psychologists across the school system following NASP’s recommended ratio. Currently, CCPS has 9.8 full-time equivalent (FTE) school psychologists, according to Teigland — not even half of the recommended number.

Lawson is hoping to close that gap with a recent agreement between CCPS and Towson University.

Per the agreement, TU will admit four CCPS teachers each year into its school psychologist program. CCPS will pay for those teachers to take their coursework at TU. The teachers will intern with CCPS and then return to the system as school psychologists once they are certified, according to Lawson.

“There is some light at the end of the tunnel, but it’s probably 3 years away,” Lawson said, noting that the first cohort will begin in September 2020.

Transportation

Under federal law, schools must provide transportation for students who are homeless as they commute to and from their school of origin, the school they attended when they became homeless.

“The idea is to not add to the disruption that the child already is experiencing being homeless by also making them change schools,” Teigland said.

According to Lawson, the school system primarily uses taxi services to transport its 420 homeless students.

CCPS is seeking an increase of about $713,000, or 9.6%, for student transportation.

Although Lawson said CCPS is looking into leasing vans to offset some of the costs the school system currently faces with taxis, he noted that option comes with its own costs.

“If you lease vans, you have to hire people to drive those vans. So the cost can pile up pretty quickly if you take that path as well,” he said.

With a decline in overall enrollment, CCPS is also seeing fewer students riding buses to schools, according to Perry Willis, executive director for support services.

Both Lawson and Willis said the school system will be examining its bus services and seeing whether any of the routes can be combined.

“We are seeing a decline in ridership, so I think we owe it to you and ourselves to take a hard look at that and see what, if any, value we can pull,” Willis said.

Staffing, salaries and fixed charges

CCPS has had difficulty recruiting and retaining staff, according to Lawson.

“Young people are not choosing education as a profession, and it puts a strain on us to remain competitive with whether it’s Harford County, Baltimore County or New Castle County,” he said. “We have to keep our focus on that for the long term health of the school system.”

As Lawson highlighted recently at a brunch event with Cecil County business leaders and elected officials, CCPS remains fairly competitive with 10 surrounding school districts for lower-level teachers but loses its competitive edge for teachers with more experience. CCPS ranks 3rd for entry-level teachers with a bachelor’s degree but 7th for teachers with a master’s degree and the most experience.

In many cases, CCPS has promoted from within the school system but has been unable to fill the positions those promoted employees formerly inhabited, according to Lawson.

“There is a tipping point,” he said. “You can’t keep doing that over time.”

Board of Education Vice President Diana Hawley said she is fearful about staffing cuts, particularly at the administrative level.

“I feel like we’re reducing leadership at a disproportionate rate and that scares me,” she said.

There are 324 students in the English Language Learners (ELL) program in Cecil County. But because those students are spread out across the county, the 11 ELL teachers must travel to different schools to serve those students, according to Teigland.

Additionally, students must be monitored for one year after they exit the ELL program, Teigland said.

If the number of ELL students continues to rise, Lawson foresees that the need for staff and resources in that program could also grow.

Meanwhile, increased state funding for schools, informed by recommendations from the Kirwarn Commission, has become a top priority for legislators in Annapolis.

According to Lawson, CCPS received a $1.5 million increase for salaries last year. But with that increase, the school system had to increase other employment costs (OECs), such as worker’s compensation and payroll taxes.

If the state funds teacher salaries similarly for FY 21, Lawson said CCPS will have to revisit those OECs again.

Large and small capital projects

According to Willis, the average age of CCPS’s buildings is 28 years old, nearing the state average of 32 years old.

Willis said the school system has several buildings in need of preventative and reactive maintenance measures. Although CCPS is slowly moving down its deferred maintenance number, it currently sits at around $20 million.

FY 21 will be the last year of CCPS’s Various Schools Energy Performance Contract. After FY 21, Willis said the school system will reallocate those funds into other areas.

CCPS is also planning to complete the final nine secure entrances in FY 21.

Board of Education members Jim Fazzino and Christie Stephens advocated for raising the priority level of the remaining secure entrances above some other small capital projects, like paving lots and bus loops, which are currently listed as higher priorities.

Fund balance and local funding

Last year, when mapping out the budget for FY 20, CCPS budgeted to use $2.5 million of its fund balance — essentially the school system’s savings account — to make up for any costs not covered by county, state or federal funding.

But due to additional costs, such as non-public placements and psychology services, the school system has spent at total of $3.2 million of their fund balance so far this fiscal year, according to Sandy Jack, chief financial officer for the school system,

CCPS has a board policy that the school system must maintain a fund balance of at least 5% of their operating budget, according to Lawson.

Jack said that if CCPS remains using just $3.2 million of their fund balance, they will be using the equivalent of 4.4% of their operating budget. However, she said she anticipates the school system will use more than $3.2 million.

Lawson said the school system must maintain a fund balance at or below the prescribed 5% mark for day-to-day upkeep and in case of unexpected costs, such as a chiller at the Administrative Services Center.

“Those kinds of things happen,” he said. “If we continue to whittle away our fund balance and the chiller goes and you don’t have air conditioning for your buildings, then all of a sudden we’re at the doorstep of county council, saying ‘We need this money and we need it now.’”

Lawson hopes that the county will approve a budget closer to CCPS’s proposal so the school system will not have to tap into its fund balance as much next fiscal year.

The superintendent noted that Cecil County ranks 17th out of Maryland’s 24 school districts when it comes to school funding per pupil by local governments.

CCPS receives nearly $1,900 less per student from county government for each of its students than the state average for local funding. If CCPS were to be on par with the state average — which is still below the local funding of 10 school districts — county government would need to provide approximately $29 million in additional funding.

And as Cecil County’s wealth grows, so will the difference between CCPS’s per pupil funding and that of other districts as the state’s funding formulas perceive less of a financial need in Cecil. That is, unless the county increases funding for the school system, according to Lawson.

“It’s sort of a Catch 22 in the sense that as the county’s wealth improves — which is wonderful and what we want — it puts more responsibility on the county to fund the school system … It’s hard sometimes to reconcile that when the economy on solid footing, it’s hard for us to realize that benefit,” he said. “The school system has not seen the benefits of a strong economy, and we are faced with continuing to cut.”

With the county’s economy doing well, Board President William Malesh hopes to see such wealth reflected in next fiscal year’s school budget.

“When we had a downturn, we had 130 teachers laid off. But now that we’re in an upturn in the economy, we’re still at the point of cutting teachers,” he said. “That just blows my mind.”

The Board of Education will hold a budget hearing on Feb. 5 to discuss the FY 21 budget request, and approve the request on Feb. 12.

County Executive Alan McCarthy submits his countywide budget proposal — including his school budget — to the county council on April 1. The county council will hear from various departments over the following month and a half.

The county council will hold a hearing on the county annual budget May 21 and adopt a budget on June 2.

The Board of Education will then approve the final FY 21 budget on June 12.

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