SALISBURY -- Being the first doesn't necessarily mean being the best, as Wicomico County's Board of Education learned this year.
Caught in a fiscal crunch not of its own making, Wicomico this year became the first Maryland county to lose its "maintenance of effort" money for its schools, sacrificing almost a million dollars in state funding after it was unable to increase its education budget.
"This is the most unenviable position, to be the first, the only county not to make its maintenance of effort," says Rudolph Karkosak, assistant superintendent of administrative services.
The maintenance of effort law was passed a decade ago when state funding for schools was rising quickly and the state wanted to ensure that counties matched the state's funding. It requires each county to spend at least as much on education as it did the previous year and to increase the education budget by the percentage that enrollment increases.
As an incentive, the state gives extra money to counties that meet the requirement.
Wicomico's predicament which some observers say soon could be shared by other, larger counties has led to a sharp debate in the current legislative session on funding education, and the issue has not been resolved.
While legislators in Annapolis debate funding formulas and philosophical points, Wicomico's 13,700 students and their parents and teachers are trying to cope with the most fiscally unpleasant school year anybody here can remember.
When the county couldn't come up with the required $325,000 maintenance-of-effort increase in the school budget for this year, the state withheld the $800,000 incentive.
Moreover, the county's revenues from the piggyback income tax fell so far short of budget projections that the county cut an additional $1.9 million from the $27 million school budget as the year began.
Hard times got harder still in a county where per-pupil spending, $5,056 this year, already ranked 23rd out of 24 jurisdictions in the state. (Caroline County is 24th.)
"This year, there were no funds for extracurricular activities," said Tom Field, principal of Wicomico High School, one of the county's three high schools. "We instituted a pay-to-play policy for the first time."
Students in middle and high schools who wanted to participate in extracurricular activities had to pay fees ranging from $50 per student for football to $15 for band.
Parents and students in the county's 24 schools went to work to find money for extracurricular activities sports, choir, band, cheerleading, yearbook, clubs and their advisers.
"They sold things and washed cars," Mr. Field said. One resident stayed in a school bus parked on U.S. 13 for several days, and a local radio station helped promote the event. People stopped by the bus and contributed money for extracurricular activities, Mr. Field said.
"It was the stuff movies are made of," he said.
In all, the community raised $110,000, the students' fees contributed about $57,000, and the school board found an additional $225,000. All of it was put into an account for extracurricular activities, said Mr. Karkosak, and most of it went for sports, the most expensive activities.
But there was no similar community groundswell to ease the pain of more mundane economies. As a result, schools went unpainted this year (each building is painted every six or seven years by teachers who earn extra money for the work).
At Wicomico High, the 6-year-old biology textbooks scheduled for replacement had to be used another year. Driver education was eliminated. There was less money than last year in the budget for crayons and construction paper for first-graders.
Across the board, from elementary to high school, schools have had to make do and mend.
The money crunch arose after plant closings in recent years caused a sharp drop in income tax revenues. Campbell's closed a plant in the county, as did Grumman Corp., and the combined closings meant the loss of 1,300 to 1,500 jobs, said Matthew Creamer, the county administrative director.
Other area businesses began to cut back. Consequently, the county wasn't getting what it had expected because there were fewer incomes to tax.
Another factor, school administrators say, was that the state, although it hasn't cut education funding, has shifted some financial burdens to the counties, particularly Social Security payments for education employees.
Additionally, there are quirks in the formula for maintenance of effort that put Wicomico at a disadvantage.
Because the formula is based on percentages, it can penalize counties that increase their education budgets by more than the minimum; the next year, those counties face a larger increase in spending. The formula does not take such generosity into account.
"Wicomico would increase by more than they had to," said Michael Sanderson, associate director of the Maryland Association of Counties. "Then that percentage gets loaded onto next year's budget. They got caught because they were too generous. . . . The formula has some strange twists to it."
Next year's "very conservative" budget looks better, Wicomico officials said. Preliminary figures indicate that the county will be able to make its maintenance-of-effort increase for 1997, Mr. Creamer said.
It is not clear how the legislature will adjust the formula.
But educators say the ground lost this year will be hard to make up, and they wonder whether such formulaic budgetary constraints are appropriate in changing economic times.
"It's good to have a formula," Mr. Karkosak said. "But sometimes these formulas get out of hand."
Education needs to be a priority," he said, but setting the priority needs to be "more a mind-set than a rule."
Pub Date: 3/21/96