Counties Seek Greater Transparency in Education Spending

As they implement the Blueprint and invest significantly more in public education, counties seek more comprehensive, transparent information on school budgets and spending.

Currently, county governments fund roughly half of all public education spending in Maryland, based on local wealth and full-time student enrollment. Universally, education funding consistently makes up the largest portion of any given county’s annual budget. However, funding public education has increasingly become challenging for counties big and small, urban and rural. The conundrum of how to fund education while responsibly balancing budgets of taxpayer funds is only expected to continue deepening — especially under the Blueprint for Maryland’s Future (the “Blueprint”), which mandates significant increases in local and State funding of public education.

Historically, education spending at the local level has operated in a sort of “black box”: local boards of education receive funding from county governments, the State, and various federal funding and then manage and spend funds through guarded and opaque processes.

Unfortunately, this has created a certain level of disjointed access and understanding of comprehensive, accurate, timely data on education spending and needs. This hinders counties’ ability to develop and adopt responsive and impactful budgets that fully address the many requirements and unique needs of modern public education.

MACo and Maryland’s 23 counties and Baltimore City have long sought more accurate and timely information on local education spending in order to best address needs and better inform priority-setting. So much so that the topic of transparency in education spending was prime topic at the 2023 MACo Winter Conference and was adopted as a MACo 2023 Legislative Initiative (outlined below). Ultimately, Maryland’s students suffer when counties do not have access to the full picture.

MACo Priority: Transparency in Education Spending

The Blueprint phase-in has an advanced interest in more transparent reporting of sources, uses, and outcomes from education investments. Federal relief and rescue funding has compounded the concern of “black box” spending without public clarity.

A statutory directive for additional reporting, a series of inputs to the Blueprint’s oversight committee, and a pending new budget-tracking software for school systems present current or near-term opportunities to instill clarity and accountability in school spending.

Reporting and budgeting systems need to ensure that county decision-makers have access to these tools and information to fulfill their fiduciary duties as funding authorities and partners in school success.

Worcester County raises issue

Recently, Worcester County commissioners raised the issue of transparency in education spending at a public meeting as the county faces an “eight-figure difference” between income and spending. Ocean City Today reported on the discussion:

With another eight-figure difference between income and spending, the Worcester County Commissioners are scrutinizing next fiscal year’s budget seemingly line by line.

Typically, that hasn’t been the case for the Worcester County Public School system and the board of education who, mostly, are left to their own devices in determining what they need and how to spend it.

But this year, some commissioners say they need more transparency from the schools.

Aside from a few questions about particulars in the budget, most of the comments from the commissioners zeroed in on the overall transparency of the school system budget — or as some commissioners put it the lack thereof.

Commissioner President Chip Bertino explained what the county needs to make responsible, informed budget decisions:

More clarity is what we’re looking for to help us. As we’ve talked about, Kirwan (Commission) and the blueprint are coming. We need to see (where we can be more efficient).

That is not the role of the county commissioners. It’s the board of education’s role. We’re asking for more help to better understand where the money is going. Mosquito control has a budget of $78,000 and I think a case can be made that there’s a better look at control in that budget than in (that of) the board of education.

Transparency in how money is allocated and spent in public education will continue to be a top-priority for MACo and counties. Stay tuned to Conduit Street for more on this issue and related topics.

Learn more about MACo’s 2023 Legislative Initiatives.

Read the full report from Ocean City Today.