It is an honor to serve the community as part of the Wicomico County Board of Education. As the year comes to an end, we reflect on achievements and challenges from the past 12 months.
The Wicomico County Board of Education counts among the many accomplishments of 2015 the fostering of a stronger relationship with Wicomico County government, as well as others in the community including; the Salisbury Area Chamber of Commerce, Greater Salisbury Committee, and higher education. School officials have appreciated the opportunity to meet monthly with the County Executive and his staff, and quarterly with the Wicomico County Council.
Those strong and cooperative relationships are important to us as Board members and should be important to everyone in the community. We all need to work together to provide the best possible education for the students of our county. Education is empowering. Education is important. Education is the most valuable asset of our community. Education will build a better future for Wicomico County.
So it was nothing short of perplexing to learn of County Executive Bob Culver’s recent critical comments of the Board of Education and its accountability, transparency, and fiscal responsibility, despite all of the meetings and exchanges that have occurred between the school system and the County Executive’s office since he took office last December. We will continue to have that dialog with the County Executive, County Council, municipalities, state and federal legislators, the business community, and others because only by working together can we ensure the best possible education for the children of Wicomico County.
Who is responsible for public education in Wicomico County? The Board of Education is charged with providing public education to all children. This must be done in accordance with federal and state laws and guidelines, and it must be done with the goal of preparing every child for college and career and success in life. The responsibility for determining expenditures and setting policies for the school system rests 100% with the Board of Education as an entity, wholly separate from county government. Yet it does its work with Wicomico County as a key partner. The county provided about 21.6% of the school system’s FY 2016 annual operating budget and the State of Maryland provided nearly 70%. Both the county and state provide funding for school construction projects.
How can the Board assure the community that it is managing those education dollars carefully and wisely? By carrying through on its promise to provide detailed financial information on its Transparency Portal. Detailed information can be found by clicking on the “Transparency Portal” button on the home page at www.wcboe.org, or by clicking on the following link: (http://wcboe.org/administrative_services/business_support_services/transparency_portal). This portal is similar to the one operated by Wicomico County.
Annually, the Board opens its files and books to numerous state, federal, and local independent auditors, all of which confirm that Wicomico County Public Schools is responsibly managing all funding allocated to them. In fact, over the past several years, the Board has received awards and recognition for excellence in financial reporting and budgeting including Distinguished Budget Presentation Award and Certificate of Achievement for Excellence in Financial Reporting (Government Finance Officers Association), and Certificate of Excellence in Financial Reporting for the school system’s Comprehensive Annual Financial Report (CAFR) and Meritorious Budget Award (Association of School Business Officials International).
How can the school system already be talking about funding for another new school building, just months after the opening of the new Bennett Middle? Because it is the responsibility of the Board of Education, the Wicomico County School Building Commission, and the school system’s Department of Facility Services to keep 24 different school campuses plus support offices, covering more than 2 million square feet, operating. And to plan for renovations, upgrades, and construction that will keep all of those facilities operating efficiently and effectively.
School construction projects require extensive planning and must receive state planning approval and state and county funding prior to the commencement of any project. This process takes many years. Since 2009, Wicomico County Public Schools has added only two school buildings: James M. Bennett High (2010) and Bennett Middle (2015). Bennett Middle was just shy of a half-century old when it was replaced this year. West Salisbury Elementary, the next school in line for replacement, has already exceeded the 50-year mark. At the current pace of one major school project every five years, James M. Bennett High would not be substantially renovated or replaced for another 115 years. It’s our responsibility as the Board of Education to advocate for improvements to school buildings, and then to ensure that capital dollars allocated by the state and county are used carefully to complete those projects.
It should be noted that county bond funds for Wicomico school projects are very targeted, and may only be spent on the project for which a bond was issued. County bond balances remain on the James M. Bennett High and Bennett Middle projects, both of which are not complete (the James M. Bennett High Phase III project didn’t commence until this year). Any unspent balance on a project belongs to the county.
Has the school system purchased buses to transport students, instead of relying solely on private contractors for school bus transportation? In the past two years, purchasing and operating school system-owned buses has become a necessity. While we would have preferred to continue the longtime practice of having private bus contractors handle all routes, the reality is that some routes were not profitable enough for contractors. And some contractors have decided, as they reach the point at which they must make the 15-year investment in another bus, that they don’t want to make that commitment. Yet students have to be transported, and to ensure that they are, the school system has purchased 18 buses using funds that would have been spent to pay contractors. So far it’s a win-win, with school buses available to transport students on all routes and many private contractors still providing that service.
In the coming weeks and months, the Board will begin working on the budget for the fiscal year that begins July 1, 2016. We welcome everyone’s input on the general operating budget starting with the public budget hearing at 5:30 p.m. Thursday, Jan. 21. We’ll keep the public posted on progress on the West Salisbury Elementary replacement school project, for which we are seeking state planning approval and funding so that the new school building can open in August 2018. We’re looking forward to working with the community as well as students, teachers, and staff to help select a new Superintendent of Schools for Wicomico County, effective July 1, 2016.
The Wicomico County Board of Education is transparent in its operations, and it is accountable for every dollar spent for public education. We strive to be good stewards of the resources for public education in Wicomico County because that is not only our mandate as Board members, it is the personal mission of each and every one of us. Everything we do, we do for the students. We welcome the chance to work with everyone who supports that mission.
Donald L. Fitzgerald, President
Kimberly S. Hudson, Vice President
Wicomico County Board of Education
Published Dec. 17, 2015 in the Salisbury Independent