Examination of school system spending must be accurate, in context

Dr. Kevin M. Maxwell, Superintendent of Schools

School systems across Maryland, and the United States, for that matter, are hardly immune to controversies over the manner in which funding is spent. We are no different, so it comes as no surprise that local newspapers and websites have been outlets for criticism in this arena.

Two lenses are critical in examining these criticisms, however: accuracy and context. One such example is a recent comment made by County Executive John R. Leopold with regard to fourth-quarter budgetary transfers. He stated that our school system has “asked to transfer money from the classrooms to administrative salaries categories.” Fourth-quarter budget transfers are put forth by the school system and, as mandated by state law for all school districts, authorized by the County Council only to align spending within established state budget categories as well as recognize additional non-county revenue obtained during the year. Fourth-quarter transfers also happen each year in County government.

Taken at face value, however, Mr. Leopold’s comment could be interpreted to mean that moving funding away from instruction to administration costs is a routine and regular act for Anne Arundel County Public Schools. That is simply not true. In the last two complete fiscal years, for example, AACPS has moved a combined $3.1 million out of the two administration categories and a combined $6.3 million into the five instructional categories in fourth-quarter transfers. Those categories include instructional supplies and materials, instructional equipment, special education, pupil services, and instructional salaries. They are areas which have direct classroom impact and direct benefit to students every single day.

Notwithstanding what Mr. Leopold and others may say or have one believe, we have been good stewards of our funding. In a difficult-at-best economy, we have found efficiencies and reallocated resources from across our system to allow us to continue existing programs that are critical to student success.

Where possible, we have rewarded our dedicated employees. As a result of prudent cost-saving in FY2010, the Board was able to reallocate funds and provide all employees with a 1% COLA-equivalent for FY2011 only. In addition, the Board was able to restore funding to avoid additional furloughs and massive staffing reductions for FY2011 like those seen in other jurisdictions.

We have made decisions with one eye on the present situation and the other on what is likely to come in future years. It does no good to solve one year’s problem and create an even bigger one a year later. When we are presented with projections that show huge funding gaps down the road, we must act to minimize those so that we don’t have to undertake draconian measures at the last minute.

In our self-insured health care fund, for instance, we are looking at gaps of as much as $15 million to $20 million annually in the coming years. If we do not put money away now – money that is gained through reallocation of resources from throughout our system – we will pay dearly later. Every $1 million that we need equates to about 14 positions. Class sizes have increased in each of the last two years as we have welcomed about 2,000 more students while adding no general fund positions across the system. I shudder to think about what those classes would look like if we have to cut staff – as other jurisdictions have – to that extent.

This is a difficult time, both in education and elsewhere. Money is tight, and the public is right to examine how it is being spent by public agencies, be it a school system or a county government. It is certainly appropriate to hold public agencies accountable. But it’s equally appropriate for those agencies to expect an accurate portrayal of the business they conduct.

The writer is Superintendent of Anne Arundel County Public Schools.

Category: OPINION

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