A Smaller But Better School System – Finally! The Facts…

by Commissioner Richard Rothschild

richardrothschildDuring the recent election there was a slew of inaccurate information regarding our schools. Funding misinformation; salary increase misinformation; class size misinformation. You name it.  And there were inaccurate story-lines, aided and abetted by a few candidates who stood to gain from repeating misconceptions.

During the March 31 2015 Board of Education budget discussions, clarity and facts finally surfaced. Let’s review a few:

  • Carroll County has been losing students quicker than it has been losing teachers. During the next three years we will lose another 1,000 to 1,200 students. Because of this, the ratio of students-to-teachers went down.
  • Student-to-teacher ratios in Carroll County are lower than Montgomery, Baltimore, Frederick and Washington counties, and they continue to drop. We’ve already lost about 3,000 students, or the equivalent of four middle schools. If Carroll County redistricted, consolidated partially empty classrooms and simply matched the student-to-teacher ratio of Montgomery County, we may save $7 million a year and eliminate two-thirds of the school system’s budget shortfall.
  • Decommissioning a few end-of-life schools, providing we do not build unnecessary new schools, would cover the remainder of the shortfall.
  • Teacher salaries remained steady, but during the past three years the board of education issued a 2.5 percent step adjustment; $11 million in bonuses; and county taxpayers provided $15 million in pension subsidies. Ironically, because of contractual technicalities, none of these is considered an increase. Pay raises associated with promotions or additional responsibilities are also not defined as increases.
  • Total education funding per student in Carroll County is midpoint within Maryland. Our per-student funding is higher than 11 other counties, including Harford, Frederick, Anne Arundel and Cecil.

Our funding effort for education, which measures spending against wealth, ranks us 6th highest in the state. What does this tell us? These indicators demonstrate we do not have a funding problem. We have an overhead and inefficiencies problem as a result of declining enrollments. Partially empty schools do not operate efficiently.

For example, imagine three schools each operating a Calculus class with 12 students each. Three teachers are needed. Redistricting could enable the system to consolidate into only two classes of 18 students each.

So, what’s the real problem?

We are trying to carry too much infrastructure on the backs of too few students. Using state approved capacity measurements, our system was originally sized for 31,000 students. By 2021, because of an aging population and declining birthrates, our enrollment is projected to drop to 24,000 or less.

Meanwhile, debate continues between me and my colleague, Commissioner Doug Howard. I’ve asked several of his supporters to articulate exactly what the “Howard Plan” was to solve the financial challenges of our school system, and I received blank stares. This was the correct response, because there is no credible plan.

Commissioners Dennis Frazier and Howard both appear to have telegraphed some level of receptivity to the possibility of tax increases. Hopefully they’ll prove me wrong. I will need help from commissioners Richard Weaver and Stephen Wantz to prevent a tax increase. Personally, I cannot justify raising taxes to continually increase operating funds for a shrinking school system. The more enrollment declines, the more money the system requests from taxpayers. This is financially unsustainable. And, don’t be fooled, even though revenue is up slightly, much of it is already spent as a result of prior years’ budgets that I vigorously opposed because they were the budgeting equivalent of spending your chickens before they’re hatched.

Now what?

I believe our citizens are salt-of-the-earth common-sense responsible people who will support difficult decisions as long as we are truthful, candid and share the facts with them. Please support our school superintendent and those members of the board of education who understand the need to make the difficult but necessary decisions to transform into a slightly smaller but higher quality school system. This will improve our school system’s ability to meet the needs of our children, and improve the board of education’s ability to meet the expectations of employees without imposing additional financial burdens on weary taxpayers.

 

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