Lawson

Superintendent Jeff Lawson explains how the county’s increasing wealth per student has impacted how much funding the state will provide the school system during a Board of Education budget hearing Wednesday.

ELKTON — Superintendent Jeff Lawson delved deeper into the role of wealth per student calculations in funding for Fiscal Year 2021, as well as the impact of the Blueprint for Maryland’s Future — often referred to as Kirwan funding — during the Board of Education’s budget hearing Wednesday night.

State funding calculations

Several state grants and other sources of funding are calculated based on a school district’s wealth per student and enrollment figures, Lawson explained. But as Cecil County’s wealth increases and student enrollment in Cecil County Public Schools declines, the amount of state funding for the school system has decreased.

That puts more of an expectation on the county government to cover the state funding shortfall, according to Lawson.

“As our county wealth has increased, our eligibility for these grants has decreased,” he said. “De facto, there’s this assumption that the county will contribute more as the county gets wealthier.”

For example, to qualify for the Guaranteed Tax Base grant, a county’s wealth per pupil must fall below 80% of the state average wealth per pupil, Lawson said.

CCPS received funding through the grant in FY 18 and FY 19 after falling below that 80% mark. But in FY 20, the county’s wealth per pupil rose to 80.6% of the state average, putting the grant just out of reach for CCPS. The school system will not qualify for the grant in FY 21 either as the county’s wealth has grown to 82% of the state average, according to Lawson.

Board President William Malesh attributed the increased county wealth calculations to enterprise zone projects like the Amazon warehouse in Principio Business Park and the Great Wolf Lodge that is planned for Perryville. Enterprise zone agreements have been contingent on the county giving tax incentives to the businesses that set up shop in these zones.

Lawson acknowledged the county government’s efforts to increase the county’s wealth, but he said CCPS has yet to see the benefits of that wealth for themselves.

“I’ll give Dr. McCarthy and county government credit in the sense that I think the things that they’re doing are paying off,” he said. “But it almost starts to feel like, from a revenue perspective, that it’s a trickle down effect and we’re waiting for the trickle.”

As the school budget takes shape, CCPS leaders are proposing an FY 21 budget totaling about $208.5 million, a $9.7 million or 4.9% increase from FY 20.

Of that money, CCPS is asking county government for about $88.7 million, a $3.8 million or 4.6% increase from FY 20.

Salaries and fixed charges make up about $172.7 million, or 82% of the FY 21 budget. Lawson said that means any cuts to the proposed budget would likely have to come from those sections.

If the school system has to make any cuts to staffing, Lawson said they will push to do so through attrition, meaning they would not fill positions after employees retire or resign, rather than cutting existing staff.

During his presentation, Lawson debunked a notion he has heard from community members that the school system’s increasing number of what he has previously called “unique students” — students in poverty, English language learners, and special education students — would result in greater funding overall for CCPS.

It is true that the state funds those student populations at a higher level than students in the general population due to the need for additional resources. But CCPS has seen its overall enrollment decline by 93 students this school year, resulting in decreased Foundation Program funding — a decrease which funding for those “unique students” does not offset. Even with increased funding for “unique students” and transportation, CCPS still faces a net loss of about $179,000 in Foundation Program funding alone, according to Lawson.

Kirwan

Lawson also discussed the Blueprint for Maryland’s Future, saying that while he appreciates Kirwan funding he is also frustrated that it does not assist CCPS in the areas in which they need help the most.

“It’s almost like if ... you’re really in dire straits trying to pay your mortgage and somebody gives you a swing set. Well, the swing set is appreciated. It’s in our backyard and it’s nice, but it’s not helping with the mortgage,” he said.

CCPS will receive about $7.4 million in Kirwan funding, an approximately $3.4 million increase over FY 20. But most of the funding through the Blueprint for Maryland’s Future is earmarked for specific things, and some of it even creates new obstacles for the school system to overcome.

For example, Kirwan funding includes a Teacher Salary Incentive Grant for $1.5 million, but CCPS can only receive that money after they give their teachers a 3% raise. Then, on top of that, the school system must pay the other employment costs that are associated with those salary increases, such as pension, insurance and worker’s compensation, Lawson said.

However, some grants, such as ones for prekindergarten and students with disabilities, are more applicable to the school system’s needs, according to Lawson.

Capital projects

The new Chesapeake City Elementary School, which is currently amidst construction, topped the list of large capital projects for FY 21.

Below CCES on the current priority levels for FY 21 were HVAC, boiler and cooling tower replacements at Cecil Manor Elementary School, Leeds Elementary School and Bohemia Manor middle and high schools, respectively. Those projects were followed, in order, by additions or renovations for North East Middle School, Thomson Estates Elementary School and North East High School.

However, Lawson said the state has waived the feasibility study requirement for NEMS. Lawson recommended that the school board consider raising the priority level of the NEMS project to begin local planning in FY 21.

Among the school system’s small capital projects for FY 21 are a boiler upgrade and transformer and cable replacement for the Administrative Services Center, a building next to Bay View Elementary School that houses CCPS’s maintenance department and transportation facilities.

Board member Jim Fazzino asked about the rationale for including those ASC projects above the nine remaining secure entrances on the small capital projects list.

Perry Willis, executive director of support services for CCPS, said the boiler upgrade is necessary for that building and its 80 to 100 staff members to make it through next winter.

“We’re at that point where we don’t believe that they will get us through our next heating season,” Willis said, adding that the transformer and cable replacement were critical to support the building’s HVAC system.

Willis said CCPS would take the board members’ suggestions regarding the projects’ priority levels into consideration.

During the Jan. 22 board meeting, Fazzino and fellow board member Christie Stephens raised a similar question about a “various paving lots and bus loops” item on the small capital projects list which was listed above the secure entrances at the time. That project was subsequently moved below the secure entrances on the list after the Jan. 22 meeting.

The Board of Education will meet Feb. 12 to approve the FY 21 request, which will then be sent to County Executive Alan McCarthy.

McCarthy will submit his countywide budget proposal, including his own version of the school budget, to the county council by April 1.

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

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

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