At a time when Baltimore County schools are cutting nearly 200 teaching positions, the system has added three dozen new employees to the business side of its operations at salaries that total $1.9 million.
An analysis of data supplied by the school system shows that it could have saved as many as 42 teaching positions and kept class sizes lower if it had frozen hiring for non-school-based jobs in January, when it was clear that spending reductions would be necessary.
Instead, the school system hired administrators, curriculum supervisors, technology experts, grounds workers, accountants and others, amounting to $1.9 million in annual salaries. Of the 35 people added, $1.2 million was spent to hire 11 employees who make more than $80,000 apiece, including a deputy superintendent, Renee Foose, whose salary is $219,000, according to data released last week.
The cuts in teaching positions drew criticism during the budget process in the spring, as state legislators, County Council members and the county executive encouraged Superintendent Joe A. Hairston and the school board to consider alternatives. County Executive Kevin Kamenetz said in his budget message in April that he "strongly" encouraged Hairston "to not merely accept this budget as the status quo, but to re-examine the administrative functions of Greenwood."
Some officials echoed those sentiments after learning about the new hiring data.
"I would likely welcome cuts in the administrative areas if we could help restore some of these teaching positions. Dr. Hairston needs to look at trimming the administrative overhead," said County Councilman David Marks.
Barbara Burnopp, the school system's chief financial officer, said the system must live within the constraints of the budget that was approved by the County Council and the county executive. If any changes were made, then the school board would have to ask the county executive and council to approve them, she said.
"At this point we are operating within the budget we were given," Burnopp said.
The budget that the county passed was proposed and put together by the school system.
The $1.2 billion county school budget grew by 1.3 percent for the fiscal year beginning July 1, but because expenses rose, including $19 million in negotiated step increases for school employees, the system had to find cost savings in other areas.
The system saved money by requiring every principal and administrative department head to cut non-personnel budgets by 5 percent and by reducing the length of summer school.
In addition, the school system decided to cut 196 teaching positions. Because there is turnover in the teaching workforce of 8,500 each year, the system was able to cut the positions through attrition and is now moving teachers to different schools to fill vacancies that arose at the end of the school year.
Many high schools lost as much as 10 percent of their teaching staff, and students can expect to see larger class sizes when they return next month. Students will likely find that some electives and Advanced Placement classes will have been eliminated or are only offered online.
Similar cuts were not made on the business side of the school system. About half of the 17,000 employees who work for the system are teachers; the other half are support personnel such as administrators, bus drivers and maintenance workers. The system cut one administrative position but did not eliminate other support personnel. In fact, the system has continued to hire and has 36 vacancies for non-school-related jobs that it intends to fill.
"I would like to have the school system explain why these filled positions are essential to meeting the needs of educating the students," said Del. Steve Lafferty, a Baltimore County Democrat. "I assume that many of the vacancies needed to be filled to ensure that operation and maintenance was occurring, but could these services be fulfilled with fewer people? If so, we could have salvaged some teachers."
The Baltimore Sun requested a list of non-school-based employees hired since Jan. 1. Excluding bus drivers, the system hired 35 employees at annual salaries totaling $1.9 million, enough to pay for 42 teachers at a salary of $45,000 a year or 37 teachers at a salary of $50,000 a year. A beginning teacher is paid $43,000.
"It verges on criminal that BCPS leadership, supported by the board of education, chose to first reduce teachers and continues to refuse to reduce non-classroom positions. They have purposefully increased class sizes and have purposefully continued to hire for positions at higher levels outside of the schools," said Cheryl Bost, president of the Teachers Association of Baltimore County.
The new school board president, Lawrence Schmidt, said some jobs outside of the classroom are critical to running the school system efficiently. But he added, "I believe that teachers are our most important personnel resource. … I wouldn't favor a sledgehammer approach where we not fill positions across the board without regard to need and circumstance. We need a measured approach," he said.
Schmidt, who said his remarks don't necessarily reflect the view of other board members, has added the subject to the agenda of the school board retreat Aug. 13.
Daniel A. Domenech, executive director of the American Association of School Administrators, said it is unusual for a school system to cut teachers first, as Baltimore County has. The AASA, which has tracked school budget cuts, has found that in the three years since the recession began, most school districts first looked for savings in energy efficiencies or by eliminating or reducing summer school, school trips, transportation costs and after-school activities.
Then this year, systems began to cut personnel. "The first line of cuts were non-classroom personnel," Domenech said, including secretaries, custodial help and teachers outside of the schools. "Then last would be the teachers in the classroom, whose elimination would impact the school system so that you would see an increase in class size."
And even when teachers' positions have been cut, school systems have usually eliminated physical education, music and art teachers first, he said.
According to AASA, about 270,000 education jobs will be eliminated around the country this year.
Many school systems have had to make those cuts, Domenech said, because their budgets have decreased in actual dollars, which is not the case in the Baltimore metropolitan area.
Maryland has maintained most of the funding to its schools for the past three years, making only small reductions in the increases that would have been expected under the state formula for education funding. Until recently, the state also required counties to maintain the amount of local money they gave schools each year or seek a waiver.
Mike Petrilli, executive vice president of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, said deciding where resources go in a shrinking pie is "a political and budget call" that is not always clear.
"I think you should protect services to kids at all costs," Petrilli said. School systems, he believes, should think hard before reducing school days, narrowing the curriculum or increasing class sizes in the early grades. The county did protect the primary grades from class increases.
He said some school systems have not given teachers pay increases or have reduced health benefits, a course of action Baltimore County did not follow.
Schools can look for innovative ideas, such as requiring all central office staff to work as substitute teachers several days a year to cut costs on substitutes, Petrilli said.
Burnopp said the current budget does include some additional teaching positions for special education and for some schools that are experiencing enrollment increases. Overall, however, the number of hires has not been enough to keep class sizes constant.
Each year, she said, the system fills vacant positions more slowly to save money. Because it would be unlikely that any organization with 17,000 employees would have every position filled at one time, the system expects to save about $15 million each year from vacant positions. She said the system would have to save $15 million before it could add any new teaching positions.
The school system has one of the highest spending levels for top administrators in Maryland, according to state data.
According to school system information released earlier this year, 291 employees who work in a central staff position outside a school earn $80,000 or more. Hairston, who earns $307,000 a year after 11 years in the job, is the highest-paid superintendent in the state.
County Executive Kamenetz said through a spokeswoman that he was not aware of the system's non-school-based hires and therefore couldn't comment.
An earlier version of this article incorrectly reported that a $19 million increase in salaries and benefits was only for Baltimore County teachers. The Sun regrets the error.