Leonardtown, MD — The St. Mary’s County Board of Education would like to conclude negotiations with teachers and support staff that leads to a three-year agreement. The majority of the Commissioners of St. Mary’s County like the idea of a three-year agreement to stabilize the budget process. Yet at a May 5 commissioners’ budget work session the idea stalled over exactly how to pay for the step increase needed for the negotiations.

Earlier this year the school board asked the commissioners to use $2.9 million of their reserves for textbooks and technology improvements. The commissioners agreed to that request, using almost half of the $6 million set aside in a BRAC Reserve to buffer the county from any actions that would impact the future of the Patuxent River Naval Air Station.

The school board had asked the county for those monies in the current fiscal year. Instead the commissioners wrapped the $2.9 million into the county funding for the schools for the next fiscal year. That put no money in the budget for the step increases for the employees.

The budget that went to public hearing included $102.6 million for the schools, up from $96 million in this current fiscal year and also well above the state-mandated minimum Maintenance of Effort of $99 million. But not including the $2.9 million one-time expenditure, the increase would have been the smallest over Maintenance of Effort in recent years.

School Superintendent Scott Smith (shown above) came before the commissioners at the budget work session for an alternative proposal — use the monies allocated for the textbooks and supplies for the salary increases. In turn he promised to use $1.4 million of the school system’s budget reserves for the textbook purchases and try to find monies elsewhere in budget savings for the technology improvements. “We will figure out a way to fund textbooks and technology,” he said.

Smith insisted the school system needed a minimum of $102.2 million for recurring expenses in order to ink the three-year agreement with the two unions.

The idea didn’t sit well with several of the commissioners. Mike Hewitt [R – 2nd District] urged the school system to find the monies somewhere else in their budget to pay for the salary increases. Smith responded that the only place they could find that kind of money in such a people-focused organization was to cut staff. He said every current position was Important.

Commissioner John O’Connor [R – 3rd District] noted that the system was facing the retirement of 38 people and they could just not fill those positions for the time being. Smith said in all they were anticipating about a 100-person staff turnover for next year.

Commissioner Todd Morgan [R- 4th District] , a frequent critic of the school system’s finances in the past, was harsher in his criticism this time. “I have had a real hard time listening to the bait and switch for the last six years,” he said.

County Chief Financial Officer Jeannett Cudmore said she didn’t like the idea of using monies from a fund balance to finance reoccurring costs such as salaries. But Smith said they were prohibited from doing it.  “I can’t use my fund balance for reoccurring costs. It’s what you (the county) shouldn’t do but you can,” he said

Smith said any staff cuts to achieve the step increases for employees would also have to be approved as part of the collective bargaining and would affect the good will achieved in the negotiations to date.

At the insistence of the majority of the commissioners, Smith was directed to come up with a plan in writing to accomplish what he wants and present it at next week’s budget work session, which is also the final one scheduled before the commissioners adopt the budget.

Later that day a half dozen school system employees spoke at the commissioners’ public forum to urge them to support the superintendent’s request.

Contact Dick Myers at dick.myers@thebaynet.com