‘Where is the money going?’ County ties additional school funding to financial transparency

“I am not giving you more money with no accountability, and that is where we’re at,” said Hornberger.

The article first appeared here, at cecildaily.com

CECIL COUNTY — County Executive Danielle Hornberger stated during Tuesday’s roundtable discussion between Cecil County Public School administrators and county government officials that she will not grant additional funding to CCPS until there is more transparency on school funding practices.

“I am not giving you more money with no accountability, and that is where we’re at,” said Hornberger.

Hornberger made that statement after nearly two and a half hours of both CCPS and county officials explaining their positions on school funding in front of dozens of county residents and CCPS students; marking the roundtable as the first open-to-the-public school funding discussion between local officials since budget season.

The Superintendent of CCPS, Jeffrey Lawson, led much of the school’s presentation, focusing mainly on the speculated complications Cecil County will face in 2025 after the full implementation of Blueprint for Maryland’s Future — a statewide funding initiative that aims to increase education funding by $3 billion over the next 10 years.

One of the main challenges Lawson presented was the “75-25” funding allocation of per-student spending and its impact on the funding of individual schools. The “75-25” funding requires that 75 percent of a student’s per-pupil allocation “follow the student” while the remaining 25 percent be used for other operational expenses.

The new requirement, should it have gone into effect this year, would have forced CCPS to forfeit its current practice of equally distributing funds to schools, as it would require more funding to go to schools with higher student needs and less funding towards schools with lower student needs.

This requirement, according to Lawson, would have led to extreme staffing changes among CCPS, with Bohemia Manor High School speculated to have lost 17 positions while Bay View would have gained 15 positions due to spending reallocation.

“And this is just to name a few,” said Lawson. “The 75-25 would have had a similar impact to the majority of our schools should it have gone into effect this year because of the position we are in financially.”

The Associate Policy Director for the Maryland Association of Counties (MACo), Brianna January, was also in attendance at the roundtable and explained that the complications CCPS and the Cecil County government face are universal funding challenges in all of Maryland’s 24 counties.

“We are hearing the same concerns with different zeros at the end of the budget and counties are starting to have to make tough decisions,” said January. “Counties are literally having to decide whether to have more police officers or to fill potholes and schools are having similar conversations when it comes to funding critical areas.”

January noted that most Maryland counties allocate more than half of their annual budget to fund education — not including education capital projects, funding for community colleges or libraries.

Cecil County is not one of those counties, with between 38 to 40 percent of Hornberger’s Fiscal Year 2024 (FY24) budget going towards education.

Lawson explained that Cecil County is not a county that has to choose between law enforcement or funding schools because Cecil County has the money in its $120 million fund balance.

“I think you can afford to give more to schools than you have been giving,” said Lawson.

CCPS officials held firm in their belief that the only solution to fix CCPS’s funding challenges is for the county to break its three year streak and fund CCPS above Maintenance of Effort — the lowest level of funding a county government can legally fund its school system.

During the meeting, County Council President Jackie Gregory alluded to inconsistencies within CCPS’s reporting indicating that CCPS has received an additional combined total of over $40 million in state, local and federal funding over the past four years while, over the same period, CCPS’s enrollment has dropped by 300 students.

“You are looking at $40 million additional covid funds that we were being told was going to be used to hire additional teachers while you have less students and yet we are being told class sizes are overcrowded and you’re short on teachers,” said Gregory. “Where is the money going?”

Gregory explained that it is the county’s responsibility to watch over how taxpayer dollars are being spent regardless of the department and, with the county’s view that the schools are providing inconsistent data and reports, the county simply “cannot do their job.”

Both Gregory and Lawson agreed that a “restructuring” of CCPS’s data reporting was needed.

Gregory also requested that county officials be informed on decisions regarding structure within CCPS and asked if there are current conversations regarding redistricting, lowering graduation requirements or changing administrators schedules as a way of saving money.

“There has to be something done structurally to where the schools meet Blueprint without making cuts but where you come to us to tell us what you are doing even though we do not have a say in school operations,” said Gregory. “We are pretty much in the dark with how your money is spent and that makes it very difficult to analyze year over year spending.”

Lawson noted that he has no issue disclosing any information that the county wants to know, but that “it seems as though the approach is to do everything besides fund the schools.” Hornberger replied to Lawson telling him to “come to the table with a real ask and real expectations” — referencing CCPS’s proposed FY24 budget that requested an additional $5 million from the county.

“And don’t freak children and parents out over spending,” said Hornberger, referencing CCPS’s student and parent survey that asked respondents to choose between extracurricular programs and critical spending areas. “Stop the rhetoric and start the partnership.”

Despite tensions at the meeting boiling over, the roundtable conversation is what officials hope is the first of many throughout the coming years as both the county and CCPS reached the conclusion that much of their challenges in working together stem from a lack of communication and understanding.


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