CHESTERTOWN — The budget season that consumes so much time for local officials is over for the Kent County Commissioners and Board of Education, with both panels having approved their respective spending plans this week for the upcoming fiscal year.
As approved Tuesday evening, June 11, the county’s fiscal year 2020 general fund budget is balanced at about $50.8 million. The budget for Kent County Public Schools was set the night before at just over $28 million. Both budgets take effect July 1.
Kent County’s property tax rate will hold another year at $1.022 per $100 of assessed value. The county income tax is increasing from 2.85% to 3.2% to bolster revenues. Also, the commissioners approved increases to water and sewer rates.
With Kent County Public Schools receiving less from the county than what was asked for, the board of education approved the district’s budget June 10 with some cuts and some wins, like hiring a content specialist and Individual Education Program teachers.
The FY 2020 KCPS budget represents a total revenue increase of $785,411 over the current budget.
KCPS will receive $18.9 million from the county this year: $18 million for operations, $645,938 for debt service and $211,597 for debt repayment on the surplussed Millington Elementary School building, vacant since 2017. The county funding amounts to $1.1 million above maintenance of effort — the state-mandated amount of money the county must provide the district.
KCPS also is slated to receive $9.4 million from the state, a $400,000 increase; $520,663 in other funds, a $447,634 decrease; and $71,000 from the federal government, a $2,000 decrease.
To balance the budget, $4,500 for professional development — counselors, social workers and advanced placement teacher training — was eliminated. A proposal to increase the recruitment budget by $6,500 also was eliminated as was an additional orientation day for new teachers, which would have cost $3,000.
The board was able to reduce its budget in maintenance and repairs by $50,000 resulting from Millington Elementary School being surplussed to the county.
The board was only able to budget for one content specialist — a position frequently talked about during this budget cycle. A content specialist’s role is to advise and aid teachers. The board’s initial ask was for three specialists. The district will instead hire one to serve all math teachers.
The district will gain three IEP and teacher specialists, which was a top priority for the district. Superintendent Karen Couch said the district will do so by eliminating three and a half teaching positions as well as by reviewing grant funding.
Couch said three teachers will not be losing jobs as the positions are being eliminated following retirement and teachers leaving the district.
As a half-time position will need to be eliminated to make the budget work, Couch recommended reducing the district’s Career and Technology Education pathway in culinary arts from full time.
“Simply because of the number of students that are in the program right now, the teacher is not teaching in the program full time,” Couch said. “It’s not a reduction of the program itself, it’s just a reduction to a half-time teacher.”
Couch said the district also is looking into other areas to save money that will not result in a reduction of staff, but was not prepared to discuss those options in the meeting.
Couch said eliminating the three teaching positions does means class sizes will increase. However, as board member Nivek Johnson — who teaches in Montgomery County Public Schools — said, KCPS class sizes will still remain relatively small.
Couch said the average number of students per class will grow to about 19 or 20 students per class.
Johnson said his classes average 35 to 40 students.
Another distinct priority, each school will be getting a 10-month secretary to man the school’s security vestibules. Couch said this will be accomplished by transferring four classroom instructional assistants to this new role and by hiring an additional secretary.
Noting the need for a secretary in all the school’s front offices, board President Joe Goetz said he’s “blown away” by how busy the schools are. Goetz also said following a shooting at a government building in Virginia Beach, Va., the commissioners are increasing security at the county government’s offices.
“If it’s important to staff a security person at the courthouse or at the High Street offices, it’s important to keep security at the schools. That’s my comment as a parent and not as a board member,” Goetz said.
Couch said the cuts come after the district made efforts while drafting the budget request to reduce spending as much as possible. She said this was done by accounting for savings due to retirements, changes to reduce health care costs, moving staff and fixed charges to grants, as well as anticipating the fund balance total.
Couch said the total savings for the budget amount to $372,714.
The board started a discussion, but did not act on, less popular cuts as ways to save money. Couch said while the current budget cuts work and balances the budget, the district needs to look at other areas to reduce spending in the future.
“This balances the budget by doing what we were recommended,” Couch said. “That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t look forward to other cuts and other savings in other areas.”
Couch said the district could look at its jayvee sports programs that do not have high enrollment.
Board Vice President Trish McGee said, compared to other districts on the Eastern Shore, KCPS offers a lot of sports programs.
Couch said the board has discussed having the high school operate on a “student driven” schedule, with offerings determined by what the students are interested in. Then, if there is no interest in certain CTE pathways, those will not be offered. This plan runs opposed to offering the same core pathways each year.
“If you offer a certain program and kids are not signing up for that program, do you continue to have that program? And I think you have to make adjustments,” Couch said.
Couch also said the graduating class this year was only about 120 students. Even with every student enrolling in one of the 10 pathways KCHS offers, there will not be large numbers simply because the class size is small.
“As much as we would like to have a great number of pathways, the reality is we are becoming a smaller school,” Couch said.
Following the presentation, Couch thanked her staff and Supervisor of Finance Jane Towers for putting in a lot of time to balancing the budget.
The commissioners approved the county budget June 11, quickly moving through a series of resolutions setting tax and fee rates and adopting the proposed spending plan with no discussion.
County revenues are expected to increase by about $2.2 million in FY 2020. Expenditures also are rising, up $1.4 million for the next fiscal year. A revenue shortfall of $1.05 million was covered by the county’s fund balance, which is unspent money maintained as a savings account of sorts.
This was the first budget approved by commissioners Tom Mason and Bob Jacob, the two newcomers elected last fall on the three-man board. Ron Fithian, a longtime commissioner, was the sole incumbent to win back his seat in the election.
Increased school funding and a tax break for municipal residents dominated the testimony at last week’s public hearing on the county budget and in written comments submitted to the commissioners office.
The budget approved Tuesday was unchanged from what was presented at the public hearing. KCPS funding remained as proposed and there was no inclusion of a tax differential — a break given directly to property owners paying both town and county taxes — or an assistance grant to the five incorporated municipalities — money given to the towns in light of residents’ double taxation.
Chestertown Councilman David Foster, who has been lobbying for a tax break for in-town residents, made his case to the commissioners again June 11 after the FY 2020 budget was officially struck.
At issue for Foster and other proponents of a tax differential is that in-town residents pay full county taxes but receive many services, such as law enforcement and road maintenance, from the municipal government instead. Chestertown Mayor Chris Cerino called it “paying for phantom services” at last week’s budget hearing.
At the June 11 meeting, Foster said he understands the challenge the commissioners face in addressing the needs of urban and rural residents in Kent County. He also said he does not see the question of a tax differential as being a fight between supporting schools and a tax break for municipal residents.
One budget draft included a tax break for municipal residents. At a workshop the commissioners instead moved that money — “a placeholder” as Mason, president of the commissioners, described it Tuesday — to the school budget.
“We don’t want to pit the towns versus the schools,” Mason said in agreement with Foster. “We feel the towns are important. We also feel the schools are important. But we’re kind of like, we’re not making either one of them happy because neither one got everything they wanted. And unfortunately we only have what we have to work with.”
Foster suggested county and town officials begin work this summer in trying to find a solution, rather than waiting until the spring budget season starts to wind down.
“It’s not going to be easy. But I know it will be easier if we work together,” Foster said.
Commissioner Ron Fithian said he is willing to participate in such discussions. He said research needs to be done to ensure everyone is comparing apples to apples when talking about what tax differentials or grants nearly all other counties in Maryland offer.
“We may be providing a whole lot of stuff to the towns that some other counties may not be providing to their towns,” Fithian said.
He spoke about how the county has been funding emergency medical services to offset dwindling ranks of volunteers. He also talked about how the state took away highway money under Gov. Martin O’Malley’s administration and the multimillion dollar hit the county budget took as a result to maintain roads.
“So there’s a lot of things out there and we could pull this information together. And I assure you, that if you can show me where we’re being unfair after we compile everything, then I’ll work with you to make a difference in the upcoming budget next year,” Fithian told Foster.