Harford school board approves budget request with $100K more for equity and diversity initiatives

The fiscal 2019 operating budget request for Harford County Public Schools increased Monday by $100,000, from $466.1 million to $466.2 million, after the Board of Education added the money to support the HCPS Office of Equity and Cultural Proficiency, but with no uses for the money specified.

After adopting the amendment, requested by board member Rachel Gauthier, the board approved the full budget, which will next go to Harford County Executive Barry Glassman, who will determine the amount of county funding to provide. It is the school budget’s largest revenue source.

Office of Equity and Cultural Proficiency is charged with improving “academic performance for all students through the efficient and effective use of resources and the delivery of instruction that is culturally proficient,” according to the HCPS website.

The small increase to the final budget comes on the heels of months of calls from members of the public to find ways to improve race relations, support students of color, increase diversity among teachers and create more opportunities for students to learn about different cultures, following an incident at Bel Air High School in October when a group of students posed for a photo spelling out a racial slur.

Most of the nine people who made public comments earlier in the board’s business meeting Monday reiterated those calls.

“Harford County Public Schools is in great need of an overhaul to its current approach to race relations,” Christian Walker, a 16-year-old sophomore at C. Milton Wright High School and a member of the Together We Will-Upper Chesapeake/Harford County community group, said.

Gauthier acknowledged “public circumstances that have certainly pointed out that we need some extra help in some areas.”

“I think that, while money doesn’t fix everything, there are certainly some things you can throw some money at and it might help,” she said.

Her amendment as introduced called for allocating funds to hire support staff for Laurie Namey, supervisor of equity and cultural proficiency but, at the insistence of other board members, it was modified to simply allocating funding to support the office.

Schools Superintendent Barbara Canavan said Namey is working with her to develop a task force to “look at school performance achievement plans and a myriad of other things regarding equity and multi-cultural proficiency.”

Namey said the task force, which is still in the “infancy stages,” would include members of the community, students and staff as well as central office administrators.

Canavan suggested letting the task force discuss and decide on matters such as hiring additional staff and then report to the board. Though Namey and other officials who work in staff recruitment have said HCPS is making strides in hiring more minorities, the percentages of minority teachers and other staff are still well below the percentages of racial and ethnic minorities within the school system’s 37,500-plus students.

Board member Robert Frisch called Gauthier’s amendment “a step in the right direction,” saying it “certainly sends a message to the public that it’s a matter that we are paying close attention to.”

Board member Alfred Williamson cast the lone vote against Gauthier’s amendment. He said he agreed with her premise, but suggested simply prioritizing more funding within the budget for the Office of Equity and Cultural Proficiency.

Wiliamson said he would vote against the amendment “on the basis that we don’t need to ask for $100,000 more that we’re not going to get,” a reference to the likelihood the county executive will make some reductions in the amount of total funding requested from the county.

He and several other board members have encouraged their colleagues, throughout the current school year, to develop a budget in line with the revenues HCPS has received from the county and state in the past, not make a request that is $15 million to $20 million more than the current budget.

Canavan submitted a proposed operating budget to the board last December that was $20.1 million more than the $446 million the board adopted for the current fiscal year in June 2017. Nearly $15.5 million of that new funding would cover the final year of a three-year negotiated agreement between the school board and the Harford County Education Association, the local teachers’ union, of two steps on the salary scale and a 2 percent COLA each year to correct years of lagging instructional salaries.

Canavan’s budget requests a $24.8 million increase in county funding to $263.5 million, about 56.5 percent of total revenue.

The FY19 budget is Canavan’s last. She plans to retire June 30 after five years leading the Harford school system.

The board adopted the full spending package in a 6-3 vote. Williamson, along with Frisch and Jansen Robinson, voted against it. Student representative Matthew Resnick also voted against it, but his vote was not included in the final total, because the law does not give the student member a full vote on budgetary matters.

The superintendent also defended funding for instructional facilitators after Frisch introduced an amendment to eliminate their positions.

Instructional facilitators work with students, teachers and administrators to improve student performance, but there have been calls in past years to eliminate those jobs and put the funds toward classroom positions.

“Everyone likes to think that their job is important, and it is, but ultimately you do have to make decisions somewhere along the line and when faced with making choices you have to decide that some positions are more important than others,” Frisch said.

He said he made the amendment based on concerns expressed by staff at “all levels of the school system” and from his constituents. He said many parents are concerned about large class sizes.

Frisch said he wants to focus funding on preserving classroom teacher positions and creating opportunities to hire more teachers “to do things that we need to support students in the classroom.”

Canavan, as well as several board members, said the instructional facilitator positions have been up for debate in prior budgets. The number of positions has been cut over the years — board President Joseph Voskuhl recalled when they were in every elementary, middle and high school — and those remaining work 10 months a year rather than 12, resulting in a significant reduction in pay, according to the budget staff.

Board member Jansen Robinson suggested finding a “middle ground.”

“Let’s find a different vehicle, let’s find a different way to provide that service,” he said.

Frisch’s motion to remove the facilitators positions failed, 5-4; Voskuhl, Vice President Laura Runyeon and members Nancy Reynolds, Joseph Hau and Thomas Fitzpatrick voted against it. Frisch, Gauthier, Williamson and Robinson voted for it.

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