Public speakers cite safety, reduced class sizes and diversity education as budget priorities to Harford school board

The four public speakers made their priorities clear for Harford County Public Schools’ fiscal 2019 budget Wednesday — school building safety, reducing class size and more funding to improve race relations among students and to hire and retain more minority faculty members.

The four spoke during a public input session hosted by the Board of Education at school system headquarters in Bel Air, one of several opportunities this month for Harford County citizens to weigh in on Superintendent Barbara Canavan’s proposed $466.1 million operating budget for the next fiscal year. Approximately 10 members of the public attended Wednesday’s session.

Christopher Providence, of Havre de Grace, and Nicholas Maivelett, of Bel Air, addressed issues of diversity and race relations, which have been a source of ongoing concern they said them and other members of the since a group of Bel Air High School students posed for a photo in October of them spelling out a racial slur.

Maivelett, a 2016 graduate of C. Milton Wright High School, said there should be more resources so students can learn about different cultures in the U.S. and the world during their social studies classes, which would ideally improve relations between white and minority students.

“As the years go by, schools are going to get more diverse and if there’s nobody to really represent those students [of color], then they’re going to feel disenfranchised and not feel like it’s a welcome place for them,” Maivelett said.

Providence, who was speaking for the community groups Together We Will-Harford County/Upper Chesapeake and Voices for Racial Change, said there should be more funds for recruiting and retaining minority teachers.

“We think it’s very important for all students to have those opportunities to interact with teachers who may be different from them,” Providence said.

Providence is a retired Baltimore County Public Schools speech pathologist. He moved to Harford County in September.

He listed a number of other priorities of the two groups, including increasing funds to train teachers in diversity, cultural sensitivity, avoiding biases and restorative practices.

Providence said Harford school officials must “take a firm, definite stand to put a stop to” race-related “bias incidents.”

He said the groups want the school system to fully fund its negotiated contract with teachers.

Canavan has requested more than $15 million to cover two step increases on the salary scale and a 2 percent COLA (Cost of Living Adjustment)— plus increase funding for multi-cultural education; support restorative practices to help resolve conflicts between students; expand access to Career and Technology Education programs so more students can get vocational training; expand support services and staff to help at-risk schools and populations; and expand before- and after-care programs to all elementary schools.

“We strongly feel that including these items in the budget for Fiscal Year19 will help make Harford County Public Schools a safer, more secure and healthier learning environment, more conducive to effective teaching and learning for all students,” Providence said.

Lynne McMennamin, a Prospect Mill Elementary School parent, said her child’s Bel Air school has experienced problems with the smell of gas eight times in the past two years, forcing administrators to either evacuate students and staff, close the school or dismiss early, or open late.

She asked the board to allocate funds “to do a full comprehensive evaluation of what’s going on.”

“We get told what it is, and then there’s something else,” McMennamin said of potential causes for the gas odor. “I think there’s something more pervasive, and I’d like to have that money allocated to see what the problem is. Instead of putting Band-Aids on it, get a real fix.”

Amy Jahnigen, the mother of two fourth-graders at Homestead-Wakefield Elementary School in Bel Air, thanked the board and “the whole [HCPS] team” for supporting teacher salary increases because “I’m just tired of seeing good teachers run to other counties” for better pay, she said.

“I’m really happy with that, and I know our staff and teachers are as well, so thank you for that,” she said.

Jahnigen said “one of my major concerns” is class sizes at Homestead-Wakefield Elementary. The school has 937 students, one of the largest elementary school populations in Harford County, according to the HCPS website.

Jahnigen said her children are typically in classes of 29 students or more.

“The kids are just squished,” she said. “They don’t have the facilities for it.”

She encouraged the board to increase the number of teachers at large elementary schools such as Homestead-Wakefield, as well as upgrade aging playground equipment.

“I know a lot of money has been invested in new schools, which is fantastic, but we just don’t want to forget about some of the older schools and the bigger schools,” Jahnigen said.

School system budget and finance staff provided more details for board members Wednesday about the $15.4 million needed to fund the wage increases, the largest part of a $20.1 million increase in funding requested by Canavan, compared to the $446 million budget the board adopted for this fiscal year.

The $15.4 million needed for the salary steps and COLA in next year’s budget includes about $2.7 million needed to cover the second half of the 2 percent COLA that is promised in this year’s budget, Eric Clark, budget director, said.

FY2019 will be the final year of a three-year agreement between the school board and the teachers’ union — Harford County Education Association — which calls for two steps and a 2 percent COLA each year.

The COLA takes effect Jan. 1 each year and phased in throughout the calendar year — 1 percent is covered from Jan. 1 to June 30, and the other 1 percent kicks in July 1, the start of the fiscal year that runs to June 30 of the next year, budget and finance staffers said.

“You’re just pushing half of that cost into the subsequent [budget] year when you do a Jan. 1 implementation,” Deborah Judd, assistant superintendent for business services, said.

Canavan praised

Board President Joseph Voskuhl praised Canavan Wednesday, honoring her for her 45 years of service to Harford County Public Schools.

Earlier this week, the superintendent announced her retirement effective June 31 when her contract expires. She has led HCPS since July 2013.

“How do you evaluate a career? I think you answer one question,” Voskuhl said. “You ask yourself, ‘Is this a better place now than when I came?’”

He said that, in Canavan’s “decision-making process, she has always worked for the children of this system in everything that she did, from when she first entered as a teacher.”

Voskuhl credited Canavan for supporting programs that “encourage teachers to become the best at her craft,” programs that develop instructional leaders, for working “tirelessly” to ensure funding for teacher salary steps and changes to the HCPS autism program that allow more students with autism to remain in Harford County rather than travel to out-of-county programs.

“So, how do we answer that question, how do we say, ‘Are things better?’” Voskuhl asked.

“’Yes,’ that’s all, ‘yes,’” he said. “Enjoy your retirement as of July 1.”

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