Harford County government and school officials faced a crowd Wednesday of about 60 parents and community members, who are frustrated with changes to school bus service and the new fees for students to participate in sports and extracurricular activities.
The Edgewood Community Council hosted the meeting in the Harford County Sheriff's Office's Southern Precinct in Edgewood to bring members of the County Council, county executive's office and school board together to answer community questions about their budget decisions.
"I think the county executive's office and the school board should do, at the very least, what we tell our children to do and that is, if you have a conflict you should talk it through," Jansen Robinson, chairman of the Edgewood council, said.
Nancy Reynolds, school board president, said the fees and bus route changes, which the board approved in June to reconcile its $424.7 million budget for the 2013-2014 fiscal year, were not designed to make Harford County Public Schools students "suffer."
"Our children are suffering!" one audience member exclaimed.
Another woman told Reynolds to "get real."
Reynolds responded that she was being real, but the woman scoffed and said the board president was in "another world."
The fiscal year began July 1, and about 38,000 Harford students are scheduled to return to school Monday.
The school board had submitted a nearly $443 million recommended budget to County Executive David Craig's office in early 2013, $15.1 million more than the previous fiscal year to reflect higher pension costs, employee salary increases and greater costs of doing business.
State funding declined from the 2013 fiscal year, and Harford County ultimately increased its contribution, but it was far from enough to cover all of the school system's new expenses.
The County Council did not approve transferring more funds to the schools; council members have said they would have to take money from other county departments to do so.
"We get the [budget] pie [from the county executive], there it is, it's cut 13 or 14 ways," Councilman Dion Guthrie told the audience Wednesday. We can only add to it, and to add to it we have to take that money from other agencies."
To reconcile the school system's budget, the school board approved removing money for employee salary increases, cutting positions, the bus route changes and the fees.
School board member James Thornton told the audience the fees and bus changes were necessary to avoid laying off more teachers.
He stressed the school board went through a "rigorous" budget process, and did not make its decisions lightly. He said the unpopular decisions made were necessary to balance the budget.
"In my corporate world we make them every day, and we make them as individuals," Thornton said of budget choices.
Parents and students have expressed their anger over the summer about having to walk more than one mile to school instead of being able to take the bus after school officials consolidated bus routes and ended bus transportation for a majority of students involved in magnet programs at high schools outside of their home school districts.
Parents have also been concerned about being able to afford the $50 per-sport fee and $25 per-activity fee.
County government officials and school board members have exchanged public letters blaming each other for the school budget controversy, and county and school leaders and budget staff have held meetings to work matters out, but the meetings have been unproductive.
"I think that you missed a golden opportunity to come together and look at the priorities that are similar, and that's the kids," parent Nancy Hofmann said.