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.
Aaron Tomarchio, Craig's chief of staff, told the audience he was "convinced we cannot tax and spend our way out of" school budget issues.
He said officials will have an "ongoing conversation" about "operational efficiencies" to save money in the coming years.
"We don't control," Tomarchio explained. "We fund, but we don't control how the money is spent and allocated [in the schools]."
Guthrie and several parents discussed the idea of a court injunction to stop the fees; Guthrie said other counties in the state have adopted pay-to-play fees to raise revenue, but they have not been challenged in court.
He said the California courts ruled schools in that state could not charge participation fees to public school families "if you have a free school system.
Guthrie also noted an attorney for the Harford County School Bus Contractors Association had filed an appeal to the bus consolidation plan.
He provided to audience members, and The Aegis, copies of attorney Erin Appels' Aug. 2 letter to Reynolds and Interim Superintendent Barbara Canavan; the letter had been written on behalf of 16 contractors who lost routes through the consolidation process.
"As parties to the aforementioned contract with the Board of Education, the undersigned [contractors] were entitled to a far more open and transparent process," Appel wrote. "Instead, the 'process' by which the Transportation Department selected and eliminated routes and subsequently informed affected Contractors was arbitrary, secretive, poorly-managed and altogether unacceptable."
Appel said Thursday that the Contractors Association was "in the process" of setting a date for an appeal before a panel of county Board of Education members; she was working toward a mid-September hearing date.
Parents of children who can no longer take the bus expressed concerns Wednesday about their children walking to school in the dark along busy streets, and past houses where known sex offenders live.
Harford County Sheriff Jesse Bane said he would do everything possible, and within his budget, to ensure children were safe while walking to school, including moving funds to hire three more crossing guards, and providing them with equipment such as lighted armbands so children can see them on dark mornings.
Bane even suggested placing speed cameras to monitor drivers in school zones.
"I have to do whatever I have to do to protect the kids . . . I'm not looking at speed cameras right now, but there may come a time when we have to," the sheriff said.
County leaders, school board members and the head of the county's teachers' union encouraged parents to get involved in the budget process for the 2015 fiscal year.
"I'm here to tell you that next year's cuts get even deeper. . . . You have to keep that outrage and you have to keep that activism and you have to go out and fight for your schools," Ryan Burbey, president of the Harford County Education Association, said.