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In contentious times, Harford school officials hold first public session on 2015 budget

Hoping to avoid the contention of the past several years over how much money is enough to fund Harford County's public school system, school officials this week began trying to involve the public, parents and their own employees early in the budget planning process.

About 25 to 30 people, including Board of Education members, attended the first of two public input sessions on next year's Harford County Public Schools budget, held early Tuesday evening in the auditorium of C. Milton Wright High School in Bel Air.

Just three parents talked during the session, as the hundreds of empty yellow seats around them stood in stark contrast.

Kelly Jester, vice president of the Red Pump Elementary School PTA and Karen Buckleman, vice president of the Bel Air Elementary PTA, spoke about how placing their children's schools on a fourth-tier bus schedule in order to save transportation costs, has had a negative impact on pupils, their families and teachers with later starting and ending times for the school day.

"It is extremely difficult to get homework done, eat dinner and participate in after-school activities," Jester said.

"There are real families that are suffering at the hands of the Board of Education," Buckleman said, reading from prepared remarks.

She suggested four ways to save money, including "more efficient" bus routes and condensed stops, as well as printing a 48-page school calendar in black and white instead of the typical color, determine how many children in grades 3 to 5 take part in the First in Math program, which is provided to all children in those grades, and grass fields instead of turf for the high school sports programs.

Buckleman and Jester also presented the results of surveys taken among families in their schools. Buckleman reported 79 of 142 Bel Air family representatives, or 56 percent, said the fourth-tier schedule "negatively impacted" their families.

Jester said 196 of 323 respondents, or 61 percent, were against the fourth tier for Red Pump.

School leaders took notes as the parents spoke.

"Everything you had to say was very powerful, and I assure you it will be given very serious consideration," Interim Superintendent Barbara Canavan said.

The second public session in this round will to be held at 3:30 p.m. Friday at Patterson Mill Middle/High School in Bel Air. School officials also held a similar session Monday for the system's 5,400 employees that was closed to the public.

Some parents have raised the issue of the timing and location of this month's budget sessions, noting they are both in the Bel Air area and are during times when parents are either at work or engaged in family activities, making it difficult for many people to attend. More sessions will be held in January with the Board of Education, after Canavan presents her proposed budget for the 2014-2015 fiscal year.

This week's public sessions are far from the only method Harford County residents have to give their input on next year's school system budget.

The presentation made Tuesday by Canavan, along with Jim Jewell, assistant superintendent for business services, Chief of Administration Joe Licata and Manager of Communications Teri Kranefeld will be repeated during a live stream over the Internet at 10 a.m. Thursday and recorded so visitors to the school system website, can watch it at their convenience.

"The best way to become involved is to continue doing what you're doing, that is, stay informed," Kranefeld told the audience.

'Real-life exposure'

Members of the public also have a number of electronic tools at their disposal when providing input on the budget, including an online budget tool, which allows users to design next year's school system budget and give their suggestions – with justifications – as to how school officials can balance their budget, which is required by law, with the same amount of revenue as the current year, yet with projected increases in expenses.

"We want you to have real-life exposure to exactly what it takes to develop and build a budget," Licata said.

Licata presented a handful of "challenging issues and trends" which drove up the cost of providing education in Harford County this year and are projected to be issues in the coming years, too, including rising costs of special education, balancing competitive wages with increasing health care costs, an "uncertain economic climate in the state and nation and the state's calculation of its "wealth factor" for each county.

Harford County's wealth has declined by a fraction of a percent, meaning it loses state funding, while counties with sharp decreases in wealth get more state funds for schools. None of which appears to take into account the flood of hundreds of millions of dollars the state is taking in from casino gambling that is supposed to be earmarked for public education.

Licata also noted changes in education policy at the national and state level, such as the implementation of Common Core State Standards, the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers, or PARCC, tests, and STEM, or Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics initiatives, carry their own built-in costs.

"If you want to be serious about [budgeting], you have access to all of the information that we have access to . . . It's everything we have, our books are open," Licata explained.

The budgeting tool will be available on the school system website after the second public input session ends Friday, Kranefeld said.

Licata said the tool is based on the same electronic tools school officials used to gather input during the redistricting process three years ago.

Hillary Doherty, a member of the Bel Air PTA and the third parent who spoke during the meeting, said she had been interacting with school officials about her concerns and appreciated their prompt response.

She also highlighted the online budget tool.

"I do think it was very effective during redistricting," she said.

Parent Elizabeth Larson, who has a daughter who attends private school in Baltimore County and two other children at North Harford Middle School and Forest Hill Elementary, said after the meeting that she would check out the school system's online budget tool, but said members of local governing bodies – the school board and county executive and county council – should come together to resolve budget issues.

"It's up to them to work together and think outside the box in this," she said. "We need to find creative solutions."

More to come

Jewell presented the "budget calendar," an overview of how the budget for the next fiscal year is developed throughout the current fiscal year, beginning in October when the superintendent hosts public workshops and school officials who are in charge of various programs give their "baseline expense estimates" to the Budget Office.

Budget Office staff prepare an operating budget based on the superintendent's recommendations, and the superintendent presents it to the Board of Education in December.

The members of the school board host public hearings and approve the proposed budget in January, and the board presents its approved budget to the county executive during February and March.

The board provides possible revisions to the budget to the public during April, and the budget goes before the County Council in May.

The board revises the budget around funds provided by the county executive and approved by the council, and approves the final version of the budget before the July 1 beginning of the next fiscal year.

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