Harford school superintendent introduces $466.1 million budget for 2018-19

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Harford County Public Schools Superintendent Barbara Canavan presented her proposed $466.1 million unrestricted operating budget for the 2018-19 school year to the Board of Education Monday evening.

The proposed new budget is $20.1 million greater than the $446 million budget the board adopted for this school year.

“This budget is an instructionally sound budget,” Canavan said. “It’s a budget that provides for the safety and security of our students and our employees.”

The request for such a large amount sparked concerns from board members Robert Frisch and Al Williamson, who have been critical of similar requests in Canavan’s past budgets since the county traditionally provides a fraction of the amount desired.

“I do have to express some concern, in that we continue to ask for monies from county government that far exceed what, historically, they have been willing or able to give us,” Frisch, who with seven years of service is the senior board member, said.

Much of next year’s increased funding is expected to come from Harford County, according to revenue figures presented to the board during its Monday evening meeting.

School officials would request $263.5 million from the county, which covers more than 56 percent of the budget request.

The amount requested from the county is $24.8 million more than the $238.7 million Harford County Executive Barry Glassman allocated in his fiscal 2018 county budget. Glassman increased funding by $5.2 million over the previous year, significantly less than what Canavan and the school board requested.

Canavan stressed to board members that the bulk of the additional funding would cover employee wages and benefits next year. Fiscal 2019 will be the third and final year of a negotiated agreement between the school board and teachers’ union, the Harford County Education Association, to fund two steps on the instructional salary scale and a 2 percent COLA each year.

“That cost alone is $15.5 million,” Deborah Judd, assistant superintendent for business services, said.

Canavan’s top aides expect $198.9 million from the state for fiscal 2019, which is $704,434 more than the state allocated for this year. Budget Director Eric Clark said the figures are “rough estimates.”

Clark said HCPS’ overall enrollment — a major factor in how the state allocates public school funding — increased this year, but there has been a decrease in the number of students who receive free and reduced-price meals and in students with special needs. The number of Limited English Proficient students had increased, leaving the projected net increase of more than $700,000 in state funding, according to Clark.

There were nearly 37,800 students enrolled in HCPS as of the school system’s annual Sept. 30 count, 354 more than the same time last year. Prior to this year, however, the school system had seen several years of declines in total enrollment.

Federal funding is expected to stay the same at $420,000, and funds from “other” sources are expected to increase by $45,400 to $3.17 million next year, mostly because of greater interest income, Clark said.

Clark said they are not recommending an allocation from the operating fund balance, or cash reserves, to balance the new budget, a tactic that was used in prior budgets.

Canavan and her top aides project $24.04 million in new expenses next year to cover either contractual obligations or items “ that we believe we absolutely need in our budget to keep the system functioning” to meet students’ needs,” according to Judd.

Those expenses include $15.45 million for salaries and wages, $6.1 million for insurance and $2.4 million for matters such as hiring an additional school counselor, an additional pupil personnel worker, playground equipment repairs, stormwater management facility maintenance not covered in the capital budget, creating additional classroom space for special-needs students in the elementary school STRIVE program, supplies for facility repairs and rate increases for bus contractors, according to a summary presented by Judd.

School system staff cut nearly $4 million from the $24.04 million in projected new expenses through “base budget adjustments” and savings in projected employee turnover, according to Judd.

The budget submitted Monday is likely to be Canavan’s last. Her four-year contract expires on June 30, 2018, and several school board members have said that they don’t expect Canavan, who has worked for many years in the Harford school system, to seek another contract.

State law gives her until February to make her intentions known, and if she decides to retire, her successor will inherit the budget Canavan submitted for the next school year, pending any final changes by the board.

‘Less consternation’

Frisch asked his colleagues to review the proposed budget, to “see if there’s some way that we can minimize that number so there’s less consternation and issues that we have to face later in the school year.”

The school board has had to make difficult and unpopular choices in the spring as it reconciles its request with the final amounts allocated by the state and county once their respective budgets are finalized.

This year’s budget was reconciled, in part, by eliminating 36 positions, which were either open or expected to be vacant when the employees retired at the end of the year. Frisch his colleague, Rachel Gauthier, voted against cutting positions during the board’s final deliberations last June.

The board must send the 2019 budget request to the county in February, according to Canavan.

Williamson objected to board members having such a short time to review the request, making it “very, very difficult to do meaningful work in terms of making reductions or even suggestions.”

The board is scheduled to review the budget during five public meetings in January — Jan. 3, Jan. 8, Jan. 10, Jan 17 and Jan. 22 — and Canavan said she and her staff are “more than willing” to meet with board members in private in small groups at other times.

The first four public meetings are scheduled for 6 p.m. in the A.A. Roberty Building, the HCPS headquarters, in Bel Air. The board is scheduled to vote on the budget when it meets at 6:30 p.m. Jan. 22 in the Roberty Building.

“You can have all the meetings and all the talking,” Williamson said. “The bottom line is, you’re going to have to cut $15 or $16 or $17 million, probably, out of [the budget]. It’s got to come from some place.”

Canavan said the board must decide what sort of budget it will send to the county executive, whether it is “needs-based” or one that has been “trimmed.”

“I’m charged with setting a budget that’s going to not only keep this system moving, but moving forward, and that’s what I delivered this evening,” she said.

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