Pass-through groups plead for funding.

At a Feb. 17 hearing, members of the General Assembly’s Joint Finance Committee delved into a $1.13 billion budget proposed by the Department of Education for next fiscal year.

The DOE budget, which comprises one-third of the state’s entire yearly spending package, represents a 3% reduction in expenditures compared to last year and incorporates a variety of cuts endorsed by Gov. Jack Markell.

In addition to the reductions, however, Markell’s recommended education budget also calls for increases of $8.3 million for teacher salary step increases and $8.8 million to fund 90 new teaching positions that will keep class sizes steady.

At the hearing, members of the committee latched on to one of the governor’s more dramatic cuts to the budget: a plan to save $20.4 million on school transportation by shifting some of the funding burden to local districts.

Currently, the state reimburses districts in full for their school bus costs; under Markell’s proposal, districts would pick up 25% of their transportation bills.

Mike Jackson, DOE financial secretary, said the measure is meant to hold school districts more accountable for their transportation costs.

“Much of the proposals around transportation really center around accountability,” he said. “Sometimes it can be unclear where the dollars are going.”

Legislators and other education officials who testified at the hearing expressed concern with the idea, arguing it would place a heavy burden on school districts that already are working with limited funds.

They also criticized the governor’s plan to save $3.1 million by halving the per-mile rate paid to bus contractors for routes in excess of 30 miles.

Colonial School District Superintendent George H. Meaney told the committee the mileage cut would force many independent school bus contractors to shut down, forcing the school districts to provide transportation services in-house.

Representing the Delaware School Bus Contractors Association, lobbyist W. Laird Stabler III urged the committee not to endorse the governor’s proposal.

“Implementation of the governor’s budget would have a devastating effect on the members of our organization,” he said.

Committee members also questioned a proposal Markell said would save an estimated $2 million by eliminating stipends paid to private schools to help offset their transportation costs.

“Parents of private school kids pay taxes, too,” said committee vice chair Rep. Dennis P. Williams, D-Wilmington North. “I don’t think it’s fair to eliminate this.”

Jackson defended the transportation cuts.

“Many proposals focused on keeping funding in the classroom,” he said. “It came down to, what proposals are going to keep funding flowing into the classroom and keep class sizes down?”

In addition to the proposed transportation cuts, others aired their opposition to parts of Markell’s plan dealing with funding for educational programs administered by nonprofit groups.

As part of a larger budget plan, the governor eliminated $4.7 million in so-called pass-through appropriations for a variety of programs not directly run by DOE. Currently, that money literally passes through DOE on its way to those programs, but the secretary of education has virtually no accountability for how the funds are spent or administered.

Markell has argued for more scrutiny of pass-through expenditures and expressed his desire for pass-through line items to be shifted to the annual grant-in-aid bill, which is drafted by the Joint Finance Committee.

However, many of the nonprofit groups on the pass-through list are concerned their funding will be cut either way.

Lucy O’Donnell is executive director of the Delaware Adolescent Program, a pass-through organization that provides an alternative education program for pregnant students.

She joined a host of other nonprofit heads who told the committee that pass-through budget cuts in prior years have left their organizations limping.

“We understand the shared sacrifice, we did our part,” she said. “I’m here to say we can’t stand any more shared sacrifice. There simply is no more to cut.”

A few of Gov. Jack Markell’s proposed cuts to the Department of Education budget:

$4.6 million in pass-through funding reductions $20.4 million in savings from splitting school bus costs with districts $3.2 million in savings from cutting bus maintenance mileage allowances $2 million in savings from eliminating transportation stipends paid to private schools

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