Member Exclusive

School board member asks Somerset County to not OK budget fund transfers


Andrew Gleason, the District 1 representative on the Somerset County Board of Education, wrote the following to the Somerset County Commissioners to express is own personal views regarding budget decisions the commissioners are being asked to make. At of the commissioners' Aug. 1 meeting no decision was made and the matter was tabled pending more information..

Dear Somerset County Commissioners,

I would like to start by saying I am not reaching out in my capacity as a Somerset County Board of Education representative. My views are my own and not the views of the board. The entirety of this letter is my view and mine alone. Do not be mistaken, though, I am not alone in these views.

I made my best efforts to keep this brief despite many moving parts that allow lies to hide in the shadows. Thank you in advance for hearing me out.

I would like to thank you for approving maintenance of effort to the Somerset County School System and not a penny more. Determining and approving the amount of hard-earned tax dollars that goes to Somerset Public Schools is a critical checks and balance step that resides with you. Thank you for not taking the decision lightly and doing your part in assuring, for the people of Somerset County, that taxation does not go without representation.

I remember speaking with one of you at an event, and this commissioner made the statement that, since there are newly elected BOE members, the commissioners should give the BOE the chance to turn things around.  Unfortunately, 7 months later, not enough board members are concerned with accountability.  You may hear that accountability matters, but you will only hear this with no actions to back up the verbal claim. Accountability questions are currently scoffed at and successfully twisted into something it is not. Accountability is not a four-letter word. Accountability is a healthy word that breeds success (and nothing less). Accountability turns bad ideas that look good on paper into scrapped ideas before they have a chance to fail in practice. Accountability takes good ideas and makes them great in practice.

I am reaching out to you today because the superintendent will appear before you to request approval for their end of the 2023 fiscal year budget transfers. The main accountability concern is there is a painfully obvious lack of desire to face and address poor behavior with our tax dollars by the administration and the BOE. There is also a false sense of urgency to approve such transfers under the flags of “it’s the law”, “we have to balance the books”, and “we will approve and talk about behavior with money at another time”. This is a recipe that will produce the same outcomes the school system has always produced because they will be conducting business as they always have, expecting the outcome to be different.

The Somerset County Board of Education owns the Public School System Budget. The Maryland Annotated Code 5-101 states: “…with advice from the county superintendent, each county board shall prepare an annual budget…” The budget is the BOE’s and not the superintendent. I struggle to understand the posturing of BOE members to protect the decisions of the superintendent void of accountability when it is the board’s budget. It gives the unelected employee full authority over the budget.

At the BOE Policy level, the BOE members have a clear focus outlined for us to conduct (and not neglect) our duties. In Policy 500-5 it states: “The Board recognizes its responsibility to be vigilant in its oversight of both the budget process as well as the allocation and expenditure of the funds received… D. Guide and monitor expenditures to achieve the greatest cost effectiveness…” How is the BOE supposed to approve (and endorse) our budget and transfers when there is no desire to scrutinize spending habits? This policy calls for the board to be good stewards of the tax dollars you approve of for the school system.

Policy 300-4 states: “C. Control - The system budget serves as the control to direct and limit expenditures. Overall responsibility for this control rests with the superintendent who will establish and assure the procedures for budget control and reporting throughout the system…” Currently there are no in month proactive controls on spending. Further, the unchecked spending is from upper and mid-level administration eliminating the opportunity to invest in teachers and students with that money.

Soon the superintendent will stand before you to seek approval, in person, to request transfers on $161,000 in funds overspent. The most alarming funds overspent are the administration and mid-level administration funds. My hope is the reasoning he gave in the BOE meeting is not given to you. In July’s BOE meeting it was stated the administration fund was overspent due to board legal fees. In June, $10,000 was spent obstructing a single Somerset County concerned citizen. Instead of seeing an opportunity to do better, the superintendent hid behind legal fees. The mid-level administrators spent 3.2 million in the last 3 months of the fiscal year. $43,000 of that, in travel and conference reimbursement that are not descriptive enough. A community member stood before you several months ago and shared our academic scores with you. What value, specifically, was added back to the school system with this spending?

The most alarming funds they are requesting to take from is the special education fund and the instructional salaries fund. These are funds you should never take from. You should only give to the most in need in our county. You should only give to teachers pouring into students. Proverbs 31:9 Open your mouth, judge righteously, defend the rights of the poor and needy.

I have heard 2 arguments for this. One is there is logic as to why that fund was chosen and two there is no logic and it doesn’t matter where it comes from. The logic that was applied is the overspending was transporting special education students, so the special education fund was selected. The non-logic is it does not matter because the books are closed and 1 plus 1 equals 2 so, “it is all good”. Which is it? You cannot claim both. The superintendent claims it was a logical choice, while board members defend it as non-logic.

I was taken back by the ocean of explanations used as rebuttals to my vigilant (Policy 300-4) accountability questions. I will attempt a brief as possible overview of a few deflections in hopes that they will not be carried over to you as data driven facts.

  • Government Finance and Personal Finance are not the same and cannot be compared.
    • Both use my money to fund their budget.
    • Both deal in behavior with money.
      • If you handle personal finance poorly, I do not trust you with a 50-million-dollar budget of my tax dollars.
      • The presence of specific accounting practices and government regulations does not excuse bad behavior with money.
    • A budget is just numbers on paper. The only thing that matters is the books are balanced.
      • This notion states it does not matter how the money is spent, just if it’s balanced and legal.
        • Not all laws are morally sound. In Maryland you can legally end the life of your baby 24-26 weeks into pregnancy.
        • Slavery was once legal.
        • This in no way addresses behavior with our tax dollars.
        • Claiming it’s the law to balance the funds is a false sense of urgency.
      • What does it matter? All the special education programs were funded and all teachers received their paychecks.
        • This one greatly concerns me. It is either a red herring fallacy or the entire conversation is being missed. $75,000 was taken from the teacher’s salary fund and $35,000 was taken from the special education fund to cover overspending.
          • The superintendent dined at Harry Brown’s in Annapolis with our tax dollars. Staff booked Marriott Luxury hotels and flights around the country.
        • When there are overages as the books are closed, the remaining money skips a budget year, and then it can be added to the 2025 budget to be used in any way the BOE likes. A morally sound and fiscally responsible use of our tax dollars would be to not overspend then earmark $75,000 and $35,000 to invest in our teachers and special education students in 2025.

Consider for a moment that in 2024 two school systems will have to stand before you. The school systems must ask for your approval of funding. Both are attempting to convince you to approve more than maintenance of effort.

School system A has no checks and balances in their spending. The administration and mid-level administration is top heavy in staff while the school system struggles. There is an alarming increase in behavior issues in the classroom. Their academic scores are among the bottom of the state with no end in sight. Their academic scores were struggling years before COVID. (That sounds familiar)

School system B’s past several years have not been great either, but this years presentation is different. They have successfully established controls for upper administration spending allowing them to invest more money into the classroom for years to come. They have a plan for continued investing in teachers and students. Especially special education students who are the most in need in our county. When requesting for more than maintenance of effort, the school system brings:

  • Data points with significant and meaningful improvements in:
    • Behavior in the classroom
    • Academics
  • Has a plan for the use of the extra funds to invest in:
    • Teachers
    • Students
    • Not administrations appetites

Which school system would you give more than maintenance of effort?

If the transfers gain your approval, it gains your endorsement. If both the BOE and the Commissioners approve, then consequences will not be applied, and boundaries not set. There is a fear of the state levying consequences because balancing the funds is required by law. I thought I would never say something like this, but the consequences from the state are prudent, sound of mind, and will promote future good habits with our tax dollars. Here is the law: if it is determined that there is a violation, the school system may not overspend on a category without the approval first of the county over the course of the next fiscal year.

Please do not endorse the cover up of overspending and set our county down the path of healthy spending habits in our school system.

Andrew Gleason

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