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Kirwan funding for schools is financial burden for Kent


ANNAPOLIS — The financial impact of the Blueprint for Maryland’s Future Act, commonly referred to as the Kirwan Commission, climate control and paid family leave were topics of discussion during Monday’s post-legislative talk hosted by the Kent County Chamber of Commerce and sponsored by the Kent County League of Women Voters.

Hosted via Zoom, the wrap-up discussion gave each member of the District 36 delegation a chance to talk about what they accomplished during the legislative session that ended April 12.

Republican state Sen. Stephen Hershey, R-Upper Shore, said that even though the delegation did an “excellent job” with capital budget requests, they were still unable to solve the financial burden facing Kent County because of the Kirwan Commission.

“It just goes to show we do too many bills that are one-size-fits-all across the state of Maryland. I think what we saw with Kirwan is a dramatic error on the part of the Legislature on trying to do something that just fits every county,” Hershey said. “Certainly, as we see through their (the Kirwan Commission) wealth formulas when you look at Kent County as the second wealthiest county there has got to be a problem with the formula. We’ve just had too many difficulties with trying to adequately fund education based on a county that has declining population and declining enrollment.”

“We need to find ways to adjust that,” he said.

Under the Blueprint for Maryland’s Future Act, the state and counties will be required to increase education funding by $4 billion over a period of years. According to the state, under the Kirwan formula Kent County’s portion of education funding would increase by $5.6 million over current levels by FY2030.

“How are local governments on the Eastern Shore going to be able to afford the Blueprint (for Maryland’s Future Act)? It doesn’t just affect Kent County, it affects all the counties on the Shore, even the wealthy ones like Talbot and Wicomico,” said Del. Jeff Ghrist, R-Caroline.

Ghrist and Del. Jay Jacobs, R-Kent, co-sponsored a bill before the House of Delegates that would have given Kent County a credit for its portion of education funding for five years to allow the county a chance to “catch up,” Ghrist said, but “unfortunately the leadership was not interested in funding this.”

Jacobs said it was a well-written bill and he was upset that the bill was never called for a vote.

“I don’t think they (state) have treated us fairly. We’ve tried everything in the world to show them the wealth disparity. I think they couldn’t figure out how to eat this elephant; there were too many bites,” he said.

Ghrist and Jacobs said they planned to re-introduce the bill during next year’s legislative session.

“We’ll try again. We’re not going to give up, we never give up. This problem isn’t going away, and neither are we,” said Ghrist.

How the state plans to combat climate change was another topic of discussion. The Climate Solutions Now Act calls for a 60% reduction in greenhouse gas emissions from 2006 levels by 2031 and net zero emissions by 2045.

Large commercial buildings and multifamily dwellings must reduce emissions by 20% by 2030 and achieve net zero emissions by 2040.

The state must begin efforts to purchase electric vehicles for its fleets, including school buses.

“This bill started out as a building emissions standards bill aimed at buildings that use natural gas and fossil fuels for heating. It was essentially a de facto ban on natural gas,” said Hershey.

He said the unintended consequences of the bill would be an increased burden on the state’s electrical grid.

One of the parts of the bill that was removed after much debate was the requirement that all new construction be wired for full use of electric, meaning no access to natural gas or other fossil fuels.

“This bill was really about ending fossil fuels. If you go to full electrification and the power goes out and you can’t use fossil fuels, what are you going to do?” said Jacobs.

Del. Steve Arentz, R-Queen Anne’s, said everyone wants renewable energy, but “you have to be realistic about it. You can’t put more burden on the (utility) rate payers through cost increases to fund the updates to the grid. We brought caution to the bill.”

He said he heard from a lot of people on both sides of the issue and asked that anyone with more knowledge about renewable energy and fossil fuels to contact the District 36 legislators.

“I am by no means an expert on this, please reach out and talk to us,” he said.

The Time to Care Act establishes paid leave for family and medical emergencies, such as care of a newborn or sick relative, through an insurance program.

The Maryland Family and Medical Leave Insurance Program would provide up to 12 weeks of paid leave for employees who have worked at least 680 hours over the year before leave is to take place.

The fund would be paid for by contributions from both employees and employers; employees would cover 75% of the cost while businesses will cover 25%. The fund would be regulated by the Maryland Department of Labor.

“Our first fundamental argument with this (bill) is that there are already products like this provided through the private sector. If an employee thinks it is important to get and have, they can get it. To go and bring this under a state agency to run was, just again, something that we thought was not prudent,” said Hershey.”

“We (the District 36 delegation) opposed this, we looked at it as a tax that wasn’t necessary at this time,” Hershey said. “Our businesses out there have been struggling through the pandemic The last thing we needed was another payroll tax or another way to put them at a competitive disadvantage to other states.”

Arentz said he believed the intention behind the bill was to help people and “alleviate some of the pain of having a family but at some point, you can’t keep holding people responsible for what you do and what I do.”

He said his main concern was the impact 12 to 24 weeks of paid leave would have on small businesses.

“Where it becomes a real big issue for us on the Eastern Shore is we are not flooded with big businesses like Amazon and those big type corporations,” Arentz said.

“We have small businesses, and that small business can be anywhere from five to 25 to 40 employees. When you start looking at a business that has 20 employees and they lose one or two of their people for 24 weeks, that’s three months and our businesses just won’t be able to handle that. I don’t believe they will be able to survive that,” he said.

The delegation said they were really pleased with how well they worked together to receive funding for capital projects on the Eastern Shore, including $3.5 million for the renovation of the medical building at the University of Maryland Shore Medical Center at Chestertown and $875,000 for Echo Hill Outdoor School.

Both Kent and Queen Anne’s counties will be receiving an additional $1 million to spend on parks and playgrounds as part of Project Open Space.

“This is a great thing for the entire Eastern Shore,” said Hershey.

State park opens in Millington as Cypress Branch

MILLINGTON — With one snip of oversized ceremonial scissors, Lt. Gov. Boyd Rutherford and other dignitaries, including Millington Mayor Kevin Hemstock, officially opened Cypress Branch State Park on April 22.

Conditions were shirtsleeve sunny, ideal for outdoor activities, and the public event coincided with the global observance of Earth Day.

Plus, it was the final day of Maryland State Park Week.

The sprawling 314-acre property, accessed by state Route 313, is located inside the town limits of Millington. Historically, it had been referred to as the Wick property.

The State of Maryland purchased the land, historic manor house and outbuildings from Fred and Mary Wick in 2014.

Some of the outbuildings have been demolished.

Cypress Branch State Park includes a picnic area and a 3-acre fishing pond. Visitors can walk along the park’s field edges and enjoy wildlife viewing and nature.

Future plans include restoring quail habitat, reforestation and constructing hiking trails.

The Maryland Park Service also will work with Washington College’s Natural Lands Project to increase wildlife habitat and improve water quality.

The big mill pond is now a part of the state park and the natural waterway is the Cypress Branch of the Upper Chester River watershed, according to Nita Settina, superintendent of the Maryland Park Service.

“This is just the beginning ... but nothing grandiose. The plan is to keep it very natural,” Settina said in her opening remarks.

She described the new state park as “a place for local families to enjoy and a place of pride for the community.”

Cypress Branch State Park will be managed by Tuckahoe State Park as a Natural Resources Management Area, according to Settina.

At the Millington park opening, DNR Secretary Jeannie Haddaway-Riccio spoke about the importance of state agencies partnering with local governments to be good stewards of the land and applauded the Hogan administration for a record level of funding for the Maryland Park Service.

Lt. Gov. Rutherford thanked the park rangers, Natural Resources Police and Department of Natural Resources “for all they do every day.”

He said he also appreciated the scores of volunteers who cut trails and help get rid of invasive species.

When the breeze kicked up and made it impossible for Rutherford to read from his prepared talking points, he went off script and emphasized the record number of visitors to state parks — said to be nearly 22 million last year, a surge that coincides with the COVID-19 pandemic.

As part of his official duties, Rutherford presented a Governor’s Citation to Settina in celebration of the opening of Cypress Branch NRMA, “providing additional outdoor recreational opportunities to explore and experience the natural resources and beauty of our state ... and in gratitude for this wonderful addition to Maryland’s world-class State Parks.”

Rutherford, Settina, Haddaway-Riccio and Hemstock planted two cypress trees at the park.

There also was a fishing derby in the pond that had been stocked with channel catfish raised at the Department of Natural Resources’ nearby Unicorn Lake fish hatchery; a booth manned by representatives of Washington College’s Natural Lands Project; and the DNR’s Scales & Tails environmental education program.

In a follow-up interview, Millington Mayor Hemstock said he was very pleased that the park has finally opened and that he was impressed with the activities on opening day and the work done by park managers and other staff of DNR to prepare the park for what he described as a “momentous occasion.”

Hemstock said Cypress Branch State Park will be a boon to Millington.

“I look forward to possible future improvements to the park, as discussed with officials at the opening in separate conversations, such as dredging the fishing pond to a deeper level, and perhaps connecting the park with the old, large mill pond area on its east side,” Hemstock wrote in an email to the Kent County News.

He said the state park will form one among several attractions for visitors, including a nature area planned by the town on 25-plus acres just south of the Chester River bridge in town and the expansion of the town’s riverfront park to make it more accessible to kayakers in the upper reaches of the river and associated branches, along with the hoped-for acquisition of the former Millington Elementary School site.

According to Hemstock, who has done extensive historical research of Millington and Kent County, Cypress Branch State Park is located on the old London Bridge grant, purchased by Thomas Gilpin in the mid-18th century, which seeded the ultimate establishment of the village of Bridgetown in Kent County.

Bridgetown merged with Sandtown, on the Queen Anne’s county side of the river, to become Millington in 1818.

Cypress Branch State Park is open to the public seven days a week from 8 a.m. to sunset for passive recreational activities. Visitors can enjoy fishing in the 3-acre freshwater pond, meander the undeveloped areas for hiking, biking, bird watching or have a picnic lunch at one of the tables overlooking the pond.

Parking is presently limited to the parking area near the pond.

The park trail system is currently in the design phase and will include supplemental parking.

The original purchase of 274-acres was combined with the adjacent Department of Natural Resources “Big Mill Pond” property shortly after acquisition, according to the DNR website. Today, the state park consists of more than 300 acres of cropland, meadows, forested areas and marshes.

Budget is on school board's May 9 agenda

ROCK HALL — The $30.88 million fiscal year 2023 budget for Kent County Public Schools was the subject of a two-hour public hearing Thursday, April 28.

The fiscal year begins July 1.

The county’s contribution to the school system is $18.55 million, the same amount as last fiscal year.

“About 85% of our budget is salary and healthcare and benefits. So that is a big portion of our budget,” Superintendent Karen Couch said during her presentation.

Couch said one of the priorities within the budget was “to improve salaries.”

The school system has $1.8 million uncommitted in its fund balance. Couch said about $775,000 of that will be used to balance the FY23 budget.

Some of those funds were originally allocated for substitute teachers, utilities and other costs, which were not spent due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Board members asked questions about how the Kirwan Commission legislation — an education reform package folded into the Blueprint for Maryland’s Future Act — would affect future budgets through mandated expenditures and revenue sources.

One of those required expenditures is a 10% raise in teacher salaries by FY24.

The funding is supposed to come from both the state and county governments.

Not included in the budget are funds for the future middle school project — whatever it might be — or the continuation of the Sassafras Environmental Education Center (SEEC).

Couch said the funds for the start of the middle school project would be built into the FY24 budget.

Kent County Parks and Recreation included funding for SEEC in its proposed budget, board member Francoise Sullivan said.

Parent Frank Rhodes was the only person to speak during the public participation. He asked if the fund balance could be used to give teachers a bonus.

Couch explained that $775,000 of the fund balance would be used in FY23, largely for employee salary increases.

The budget will be discussed at the next Board of Education meeting 6:30 p.m. Monday, May 9. It is expected that the budget will be adopted then.

Couch and board President Joe Goetz will present the budget to the Kent County Commissioners 10 a.m. Tuesday, May 10.