State Legislators Criticize DOE Funding

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(L) State Senator Gary Simpson , State Representative Harvey Kenton.
(L) State Senator Gary Simpson , State Representative Harvey Kenton.

By Terry Rogers

Recently, State Representative John Kowalko (D-Newark) issued a statement criticizing growth at the Department of Education (DOE) and the retention of staff members hired using one-time grant funds. The criticism was directed at Governor Jack Markell and DOE related to what he says are eight staff members whose salaries were paid for using General Fund money who were hired as a direct result of the $119 million received by the federal government through Race to the Top.

Legislators who represent the Milford area agree with Representative Kowalko, agreeing that there are many issues with the retention of the eight staff members, seven of which earn more than $100,000 per year despite the fact that the Race to the Top grant is ending.

“Department of Education leaders were aware that Race to the Top was one-time grant money that would run out after a few years,” said Representative Harvey Kenton. “Knowing that, they should not have created new programs and positions using those funds that would require new, ongoing state expenditures to sustain. As a member of the Joint Finance Committee, I voted against budgeting any state money for this purpose. Unfortunately, I was on the losing side of that vote.”

Senator Kowalko filed an information request with the Office of the Controller General and the response from that office indicated that none of the $3.75 million in the FY 2016 operating budget was used to pay for the salaries of DOE staffers initially hired with Race to the Top funds. However, the report noted that vacancies in the General Fund were used to retain eight of those who were hired as a direct result of Race to the Top funding. Salaries for these positions range from $85,020 to $134,337.

Senator Gary Simpson sees an even larger problem with the process as he had initial concerns when the state was awarded the Race to the Top grant. From the beginning, he was concerned that newly hired and highly paid staff at DOE would eventually become the responsibility of the state and questioned whether the grant money would bring the results that the state expected.

“Unfortunately, the results of their efforts have been mixed and many doubt if we’ve gotten our monies worth in higher education achievement,” Senator Simpson said. “Too many of those dollars went to support expanded staff, excessive salaries and programs at DOE rather than in making it to the classroom where they properly belonged. Now, as I suspected, DOE would like to retain those highly paid and numerous staff positions to run a program whose results are mixed at best. It’s time now for DOE to reassess its priorities and make decisions based on what’s best for students in the classroom rather than what is best for DOE hierarchy.”

According to Representative Kowalko, DOE has added 34 staff positions in recent years and says that this is not “responsible shrinking of government.” Representative Kowalko said that DOE was well aware that Race to the Top funds were temporary, yet they spent a portion of the grant money on hiring positions that would eventually become a burden on the state. Representative Kowalko said that it was a “casual disregard for public funding” and that it “displays a disturbing level of hubris by agency leaders.”

House Minority Whip Deborah Hudson (R-Fairthorne) also agreed with the assessments of Representatives Kowalko and Kenton as well as Senator Simpson. She felt that a state agency who could absorb $900,000 in annual salaries had far too much excess fat built into the budget and that the agency needed to be reviewed for efficiency and effectiveness.”

“This is certainly not the first time that federal dollars have come to the state in one-time amounts,” said Senator Simpson. “I think we are going down that same road when we accepted money from the feds when they wanted to expand Delaware’s Medicaid program a couple of years ago. Sooner than later though, the citizens of Delaware will be the ones left paying the tab when those dollars dry up. Typical for state government, we never seem to learn that monetary gifts from the feds can be the noose that eventually strangles your budget.”