Harford school board passes $461.7 million budget; funds raises but cuts support positions

The Harford County Board of Education approved a $461.7 million operating budget for the next school year early Tuesday morning, after hours of debate and pleas from scores of school employees not to cut a number of support positions.

None of the 10 board members appeared happy with the final result, nor was Superintendent Barbara Canavan, who was attending her final meeting – one that turned out to be a seven-hour marathon that ended just before 1:30 a.m.

Hundreds of people converged on school headquarters early Monday evening for the board’s final actions on the new budget, the majority concerned that either they or valued colleagues could lose their jobs or be shuffled into lesser positions, or concerned their negotiated salary increases wouldn’t be funded.

The pay increases stayed intact, funded primarily by tapping the fund balance by more than $10 million, a proposal that touched off denouncements from Canavan, her finance staff and several board members.

When the smoke cleared, however, the 2 percent cost of living and one or two step raises negotiated by the school system’s five employee unions were fully funded.

The feared job cuts, amounting to 81 full-time equivalent positions, were approved, with most affecting teacher mentors, special education inclusion helpers and media technicians. Support staff reductions include 15.5 media techs, 22 teacher mentors and 31 special education inclusion helpers.

The school administration officials have said, and reiterated again Monday, that the reductions should not result in forced firings.

Those affected will be offered positions with as close to comparable pay, Canavan said, while acknowledging the system will have to find innovative ways to replace the support those positions provide.

Several in the audience voiced skepticism with those claims, as did many of the 35 people who spoke during the public comment portion of the meeting.

Samantha Holthaus, a first-year fifth-grade teacher, spoke tearfully about the assistance provided by her teacher mentor.

“My mentor teacher ... has been my most important colleague; she has supported me when my class size reached up to 35 students; when I needed help with English language learners and special needs students, she was there,” Holthaus said. “She has sat with me every Wednesday night, helping me with lesson planning and just navigating the world of teaching.”

One in three teachers face burnout and quit by their fifth year, she continued. “I can say with confidence that keeping the mentor teaching position would greatly decrease this number.”

The speakers were part of a crowd that packed the board meeting room to capacity – with dozens of people standing, and spilled out into the adjoining hallways of the A.A. Roberty Building, prompting Bel Air Police to be summoned, followed by a deputy state fire marshal, to clear out the people standing because of fire safety concerns.

Some of those present had come for spring awards presentations, students and parents, and they were asked to remain in the board room for that early part of the meeting.

Those attending for the budget deliberations were asked to wait in the hallway or outside or, if not signed up to speak, to watch at home on the live stream. Some people perched by the meeting room windows and watched from outside.

After the awards presentations were completed, the meeting room filled up for the budget deliberations, with many people still standing in the hallway or watching from outside.

The board originally approved a $466.2 million operating budget that was heavily dependent on almost a $25 million increase in county government funding, some $17.8 million less than the $7.1 million Harford County Executive Barry Glassman and the County Council approved.

To make up the shortfall from the county and for an unanticipated increase in health insurance premiums and some other expenses, Canavan and her staff had proposed across-the-board reductions of almost $6.7 million in operating expenses, including the position cuts.

They also proposed reducing the pay increase packages by a total of $2.2 million, while tapping the fund balance — the year over year unobligated surplus from prior budgets – for $8.5 million to fund the remainder of the pay increase package, the total cost of which is estimated at $15.5 million.

The board amendment to use fund balance to also fund the remaining $2.2 million of the raise package was proposed by member Alfred Williamson, who said past budgets have ended the year with surpluses approaching $35 million.

But Canavan and her financial staff, as well as some board members, said using fund balance for recurring expenses places the school system’s finances at great risk if there is an unforeseen calamity, such as damaged roof, failed heating system or failed electrical system, as has happened to HCPS buildings in recent years, or if fuel or health insurance costs take a sudden spike, or if there is a bad winter requiring more snow removal and fuel expenses.

The fiscal staff estimates the current budget year will end next month with a $13.3 million surplus, not counting accounts receivable that may have to be paid into the new fiscal year.

“You can’t run the system on a $1.1 million fund balance,” Canavan warned, but the amendment squeaked through on a 5-4 vote. Student member Matthew Resnik, who only has a so-called preferential, non-binding vote, cast his vote in favor.

Passage of the budget followed, also on a 5-4 vote – Resnik also voting against. Williamson drew the ire of several other members by announcing beforehand he would vote against it, because he wanted to take more time, hold an additional meeting or meetings to discuss possible adjustments that could be made to save some of the support positions that will be cut.

“This is bizarre, beyond bizarre,” said board member Thomas Fitzpatrick, who ended up voting for the final budget, one that he made it clear, “I don’t like.”

“Last night’s budget vote was bittersweet for our teachers, our schools and our students,” Ryan Burbey, president of the Harford County Education Association, the largest HCPS union that represents about 3,000 teachers and counselors, said in an emailed statement Tuesday afternoon.

“While teachers will be getting the salary enhancements that were promised in our negotiated agreement, it comes at the cost of positions and programs which will directly affect the classroom,” Burbey said, while restating criticism that the board did not opt to cut instructional facilitator positions, rather than teacher mentors, who work more directly with the classroom teachers, while facilitators mainly observe and evaluate them.

“While mentors returning to the classrooms will mean that some of our most experienced and best teachers will be working with children every day, helping to offset the loss of experienced teachers, it also means that our newest teachers will not all receive the support they deserve,” he said.

avought@theaegis.com

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