Bertino: Kirwan Could Miss the Mark for Worcester

Kirwan could have devastating effect on Worcester

Note: This commentary’s author is Chip Bertino, a Commissioner for Worcester County, a jurisdiction that bears a puzzling contradiction for fiscal calculations. The county’s nominal tax base is inflated by property values, mainly in and around Ocean City, but its full-time residents are not typically “wealthy,” and nearly half of its public school students qualify for free or reduced-price meals based on family income.

A threat looms over the horizon.

Earlier this month I attended the annual Maryland Association of Counties (MACo) conference held in Cambridge. One of the conference sessions entitled “Keeping Up with Kirwan,” was an update on the Kirwan Commission’s progress. What was said was alarming.

The one-year study, now in its twenty-sixth month, was charged with evaluating academic needs, opportunities and funding with a goal toward propelling the state education system to global performance levels. The session I attended was moderated by two Commission members, each appointed to the Commission by MACo. There is a total of 25 members on the Commission, a majority of whom are educators.

What I heard during this session and the possible impact the Commission’s conclusions, if implemented, could have on Worcester County taxpayers raised all sorts of red flags. It’s clear, even during this early stage of learning what’s contained in the Kirwan Commission findings, that fair and equitable funding solutions have not been part of the deliberative process. The projected cost of the Commission’s plan is $4.5 billion. The state legislature is expected to review the Commission’s findings during this session. It is expected to deliberate on the funding aspects during the next session.

Currently there is an unfair omission to the state education funding formula that weighs heavily on Worcester County taxpayers. The weight will only become more burdensome should Kirwan be adopted. So, it is not too soon to raise awareness on this looming threat. Why? Because if the current state wealth funding formula, which predates the creation of the Kirwan Commission, is not addressed and fixed, the ramifications of Kirwan on Worcester County taxpayers will become more odious.

The current state wealth formula, which relies heavily on the assessed values of Ocean City properties, ranks Worcester as one of the wealthiest counties in the state. The state equation does not incorporate local demographics which in the case of Worcester is necessary to establish a realistic representation of the County. Identifying Worcester as wealthy is erroneous and misleading especially when nearly 45% of our students are enrolled in the FARM (Free and Reduce Meals) program. The sad reality is that the farther south one travels on Route 113 below Berlin, the more evident poverty within our county becomes.

Worcester County is very fortunate to have a premier education system. Thanks to past and present taxpayers, Board of Education members, school superintendents, teachers, students and County Commissioners our county school system is a community-based achievement of which we can all be proud. We have accomplished this despite state mandates that have weighed heavily on County taxpayers.

According to Fiscal 2018 data compiled by MACo, Worcester County taxpayers pay the highest per student allocation of any other county in the state, just over $13,000. This amount does not include restricted or debt service funding which brings the figure up to over $16,000. Worcester spends more per student than Montgomery, Howard, Baltimore, Prince George’s counties and Baltimore City. In fact, Worcester County taxpayers spend more on each student than Caroline ($2,596), Wicomico ($2,925) and Somerset ($3,596) county and Baltimore City ($3,645) taxpayers combined.

The biggest concern heard during the conference was learning there has been nearly zero discussion by Commission members on the funding formula used to determine a jurisdiction’s education allocation. One of the goals of the Commission when it was formed was to address the current funding formula inadequacies. Sadly, this has not happened.

Our County gets the second lowest amount (behind Talbot) of state education funding assistance per student at $4,195. To put this in perspective, Wicomico County receives $10,591 per student; Somerset gets $12,954; Dorchester gets $10,260; and, Baltimore City gets $12,104.

Kirwan recommends: mandated statewide teacher starting salaries at $60,000. (The starting salary for teachers in Worcester County is $44,700); a requirement that teachers spend only 60% of their time in the classroom teaching; and, mandated all-day Pre-K for three- and four-year-olds.

The inequities of the current formula are magnified many times over through the lens of Kirwan. Should the Commission’s recommendations be approved by the state legislature and signed by the Governor, should there be no change to the current funding formula and should no additional education funding be provided to Worcester County by the state, the effects of Kirwan on our County budget will be deleterious.

Regardless of whether the findings of the Kirwan Commission are implemented, the state must review and reformulate the education funding formula so it is fair and equitable; that it takes into account local demographics. This is necessary so that Worcester County taxpayers are spared increasingly heavy and unreasonable financial burdens.

Parents, students, educators and taxpayers should expect Worcester County to continue to provide an exceptional education experience. To that end, our County should expect and demand that it be treated fairly by the state.

Michael Sanderson

Executive Director Maryland Association of Counties