CHESTERTOWN — Members of the 36th District delegation — Dels. Steve Arentz (R-36-Queen Anne’s), Jay Jacobs (R-36-Kent) and Jeff Ghrist (R-36-Caroline) were present at the Kent County Commissioners Nov. 29 meeting to discuss legislation ahead of the 2023 session.
Senator Steve Hershey (Upper Shore) was not able to attend.
“I think our main discussion today is going to be Kirwan and the impact it’ll have on Kent County’s citizens,” Commission President Tom Mason said. Kirwan — called Kirwan after William “Brit” Kirwan who chaired the commission — is formally known as the Blueprint for Maryland’s Future, legislation that changed the funding formula for schools among other things.
Before turning the discussion over to the delegates, Mason said some policies in Kent County hurt business expansion and prevent diversity in agriculture endeavors, which will cause the county to struggle with economic development.
“Our property taxes are already some of the highest on the Eastern Shore and will only have to go higher if we want to exist, and I don’t think many of our citizens realize that,” Mason said. “Kent will become a county of the elites and the well heeled, and ordinary citizens will struggle, and I don’t think that’s a pretty picture.”
“The big issue obviously is the Kirwan, and I’m not sure everybody understands yet — I think we’re making it clearer all the time — that it’s a big nut to crack for us,” said Commissioner Ron Fithian. “We’re looking to you all for where could we go for some help.”
In fiscal year 2023, the county’s contribution for education funding is $19.1 million. Fithian said raising the county’s contribution to $31.2 million in fiscal year 2034 is an “enormous undertaking.”
“I think that the majority of the legislature passed a bill and didn’t even know what was in it until after the fact, and they’re still struggling with what’s in it,” Fithian said. “I don’t know who we go to to talk to to see if we can get some kind of something done about it. But it doesn’t seem, to me, like it’s something we can handle.”
Jacobs said, using its standard funding formula, the state earmarked Kent County as the third wealthiest.
“The disparity of the school system and folks that live and really do the service work in the county is not evident of where we rank in the wealth rankings,” he said.
Commissioner Bob Jacob said without economic development in Kent County, funding the school system under Kirwan was going to hurt retired people and the workforce through property taxes.
“(Families are) going to have to make a choice whether they’re going to pay for schools or pay for food for their children, medical care for their children, so many other things that if you don’t have them, schools don’t function,” Mason said. “There’s going to have to be choices made.”
Jacobs said he has argued against the formula since he started working in Annapolis. He was told during several meetings that the funding formula was implemented the same way in every county across the state.
Ghrist said the funding formula does not consider declining enrollment.
Kent County lost 1,000 residents between the 2010 and 2020 censuses, and Jacob said the county is “at a turning point where it could get a lot worse.”
Rather than approach the Kirwan issue from the lens of the funding formula, Jacobs said the delegation will go at it from a different route to try to lessen the financial impact on Kent County.
“It’s not just Kent County, there are a lot of counties that are really not prepared for where we are in the implementation of Kirwan right now. It’s going to take some negotiations,” Jacobs said.
Ghrist said the delegation was “fighting at a loss to kill Kirwan altogether,” so the focus moving forward was to try to ease its impact. He noted they would have to find ways to help Kent County’s budget “as a revenue source that’s outside of the Kirwan formula.”
Arentz said the Kirwan legislation was like a wishlist and contained a lot of things that people liked, but now it’s time to pay for it.
The delegation has met with the district’s four superintendents to discuss Kirwan issues, and from those meetings, Arentz said, “there (are) glaring deficiencies that just can’t be met physically or mentally or process wise.”
Under the Kirwan legislation, all new teachers will have a baseline salary of $60,000 which will also cause existing teachers to receive raises, Ghrist said. Schools will also have to add programs for three-year-olds, taking up classroom space that is already scarce. Those programs will increase districts’ operating and capital costs and force some schools systems to install portable classrooms to accommodate all of the students.
“We’re going to use these terms when talking to our colleagues. It’s going to be a disaster not just for our constituents, not just for our school systems, not just our students and teachers and our parents, but it’s going to be for them too, and do they want to ignore that? I hope not. I hope they don’t want to turn their back on their own people. So that’s the case we’re going to make. We’re going to have to delay things,” Ghrist said.
The four school systems within District 36 will not have Kirwan fully implemented by the March 15 deadline, noted Ghrist, calling it “impossible.”
“So they’re going to do what they can, so they’re going to be out of compliance,” Ghrist said. “I guarantee you 24 jurisdictions in the state of Maryland will be out of compliance. So what are we going to do about it as legislators? That’s what we’re going to challenge our colleagues to do in this session. We’re going to take a little bit different strategy, we’re going to try to do a little patchwork and make Kirwan better.”
“If all 24 jurisdictions would say we can’t do this, I would think they’d have to back off, but of course that’s probably not going to happen,” Mason said. “Everyone’s for education, it’s not like you’re not for education.”
Jacobs said he has spoken with the commissioners-elect and they are all on the same page about what needs to be done with Kirwan.
“We’re going to work hard at it, we’re asking for your support, we need to be a team when we go in there and fight together for all citizens of Kent County and that’s the one thing we have to do, be unified in this effort,” Jacobs said.
Mike Waal, a community member present at the meeting, commented that during the 2022 legislation session, he was disappointed when Jacobs submitted legislation, there was not a senate crossover bill.
Waal said he hopes that does not happen again this year.
“We have to have a united front,” he said. “If we’re going to move forward on this, it has to be everybody, and you elected commissioners, you’ve got to be part of the solution.”
Not only does a lack of a senate crossover bill show that Kent is not serious, but a lack of testimony from county officials adds to that, Waal noted.
Ghrist said Hershey is on board with supporting their Kirwan-related legislation. He said last year’s legislation was introduced near the end of the filing deadline. Jacobs said that last year’s senate filing deadline was ahead of the house deadline.
“Moving forward this year we sort of have framework already,” Ghrist said, adding that Hershey will cross file. He said it was also possible that if there is another bill looking to achieve similar goals, they will amend it to include Kent County, rather than introduce a separate bill.
Bryan Matthews, executive director of Kent Forward, also spoke Nov. 30. He recalled the community support to save the hospital several years ago and asked if that type of community action and involvement would help again.
Jacobs said citizens will be “stirred up” once they realize and understand the potential tax increase.
“You talk about we’re a wealthy county but, what, 60% of the kids are on assisted lunch, or at least they used to be. It doesn’t make sense,” Fithian said. Of Kent County’s five public schools, four are considered Title I schools, or schools with high numbers or percentages of students from low income families.
Ghrist said the funding formula disproportionately hurts one or two counties and if it were changed, “the pain” would be spread to more counties. Because of that, the delegation’s strategy will not be to change the formula, he said.
“We’ve got to figure out a way to make (funding Kirwan) more palatable for Kent,” Jacobs said.
“I think along with that, we have to try to help ourselves,” Mason said. “We have a reputation over here of being against everything. If we don’t do something to try to generate more business … if I was in Annapolis from one of those other counties I’d say, ‘if you don’t want to help yourselves then why should we help you?’ … We have got to get that attitude out of our mind … and we’ve got to generate more money.”
Arentz emphasized the importance of not only Kent County’s commissioners working with the delegation, but other government officials within the district coming together as well.
Thanking the delegates for their time, Fithian concluded, “Obviously we’ve got to work together if we’re going to stand a snowball’s chance at all.”
This story has been updated to identify and correctly attribute remarks made by Mike Waal at the meeting.
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