The final 2013 budget for Harford County Public Schools could be still up in the air by as much as $24 million because of ongoing labor negotiations and uncertainty about state funding – as well as by the county's refusal, thus far, to give the system any more money next year.

Instead of discussing Harford County Executive David Craig's proposed budget like every other department, members of the county council listened as school system representatives presented their own, separate budget during a review session with the council Thursday afternoon.

Craig allocated $214.3 million for the schools in the proposed 2013 budget he sent to the council earlier this month, but the school system wants the county to fund $238.5 million of its $447.3 million operating budget next year. What Craig proposed to give the schools next year is just $200,000 more than the county provided in 2012 toward a total school operating budget of $428.8 million. Most of the remaining funding comes from the state government.

For 2013, the school system also proposes a $24.5 million restricted fund budget – required state or federal programs to which the county doesn't contribute money directly, as well as a $15.7 million capital budget.

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Confusion between '12 and '13

Several council members seemed confused by the situation with the operating budget, which school officials said came about because of labor union disputes that date back to last year, when the school system and its unions agreed to a raise package based on the assumption the county would provide the necessary money to fund it. Craig did not, however, and the council backed him.

The 2012 contract with the teachers union, the school system's largest union, has been tied up in a protracted binding arbitration process the state mandated starting last year. At this point, the dispute is in court, but the school labor board essentially ruled the school system acted in bad faith by not funding the 2012 contract and needs to consider coming up with the money to do it.

Superintendent Robert Tomback explained to the council that the school system typically aligns its budget with the county executive's budget.

"We did not do that this year," Tomback told the council. "One order the [labor board] gave was that they ordered us back to renegotiations and they cited the fact that, indeed, we amended our budget prior to that budget coming to you as the final authority in Harford County."

Tomback said that by aligning the school budget with Craig's, "we essentially narrow the parameters of renegotiation."

He added that he did not agree with the labor board's finding and noted that school system is appealing it. At this point, however, he added, the school system must comply with the existing order and go back to the negotiating table on the 2011 contract.

Council can't act unilaterally

"It still does not deal with the fact that in accordance with the charter, specifically section 5-12, it is true the council can raise the tax rate to increase the amount of money we have available to deal with your request, but the problem is we cannot by law adjust any of the revenue estimates," Council President Billy Boniface told Tomback. "That has to be done by the county executive."

Regarding negotiations, Boniface added, "We can't cut the county executive out of the picture."

"I agree with you," Tomback answered. "I say we are complying because we have no choice. To not comply would be foolish. We are following that ruling, but simultaneously, we are appealing that ruling because we do not agree with it."

The picture is complicated by a state law that permits a county council to restore any school funding requested from the county that has been reduced by the county executive.

In other words, for 2013, Craig has reduced the school system's request for funding from the county by the $24.2 million that now is in question. But, as Boniface and other council members noted, to put any of that money back would almost certainly necessitate a tax increase, one that could not be put into play unless Craig agreed to spend the additional money.

Earlier this month, Craig said he believes the school system can make reductions elsewhere in its current operations and use that money to increase pay for its 5,200 employees, rather than depending on the county to just give it more money.

School officials said Thursday it is a "real possibility" that they could have to come before the council again in the summer with an amended budget request.

Councilwoman Mary Ann Lisanti said the situation puts everyone involved into "very uncharted waters."