Harford school board faces critical decisons on budget, next superintendent

Facing a self-imposed deadline of Monday to close a $10 million-plus funding gap in next year’s budget, the Harford County Board of Education is also trying to wrap up hiring a new superintendent at the same time.

Although the two decisions aren’t directly linked, their outcomes will be because the new superintendent will inherit and have to work under the budget that is before the board, whatever final form it takes. Whoever is chosen won’t have been involved in putting the budget together.

Earlier this week, board President Joseph Voskuhl said they were still negotiating with the preferred candidate to replace Superintendent Barbara Canavan, who is due to retire when her contract ends June 30.

“It’s frankly taking longer than I expected,” Voskuhl said following the board’s meeting Monday night.

Down to two

In mid-May, the board announced its two finalists for the position, David Ring Jr. and Sean Bulson, and each spent a day visiting the county, meeting with principals, teachers and other school employees, students, and the general public.

Following those visits, Voskuhl said a final choice would be made and a contract negotiated and voted upon by the board by the middle of June.

The hiring process is already running a few weeks behind schedule, as the board had originally wanted to make the hire by the end of May to provide a transition period of at least a month.

Ring, who is not employed, lives in Baltimore County; Bulson works for the University of North Carolina system but has family living in the Washington, D.C., area. Both have said they will move to Harford County if selected.

Though neither has run a school system as large as Harford’s, Ring and Bulson have experience as high school principals and deputy superintendents in Baltimore and Montgomery counties, respectively, and running smaller districts than Harford in Delaware and North Carolina, respectively.

Canavan, who has run the Harford system since July 2013 and has more than 40 years of HCPS service as a teacher, principal and administrator, is paid $218,307 annually. Her contract provides for personal use of an HCPS vehicle, retirement system contributions and other perquisites.

Finalizing the next superintendent’s contract, which will be for four years, does not necessarily have to be completed before Monday’s board meeting; however, the session is the only one the board has scheduled prior to the end of the fiscal/school year – and Canavan’s tenure – June 30.

Voskuhl said he is anxious to finish both Monday, because the new superintendent’s contact has to be approved in a public meeting. The session Monday starts at 6:30 p.m. in the A.A. Roberty headquarters building on Courtland Street in Bel Air. An agenda had not been posted as of 3 p.m. Thursday.

Canavan’s impending departure also is complicated by the potential of several high-ranking school administrators leaving with her. Many of her top aides are eligible to retire, and it’s not uncommon for a new superintendent to shuffle the senior management ranks or bring in new people. Whomever succeeds Canavan will have barely eight weeks to assemble a central office staff before the 2018-19 school year begins Sept. 4.

Budget crunch

The Harford school board is no stranger to last-minute budget crunches – each of the existing board’s budgets in 2016 and last year went down to the wire, as has every school budget this decade, and several before then.

The problem comes down to what the school officials approve and what is actually available for them to spend from the county, state and federal governments and other sources, such as unspent surpluses from prior budgets and, since 2015-16, student extracurricular activity fees.

This year, the projected shortfall is $17.6 million on a board approved operating budget of $466.2 million, Canvan’s fiscal staff said earlier this week.

The shortfall results from a combination of the increase in county funding being significantly less than requested, $7.1 million versus $25 million, plus a higher than projected cost for employee health insurance of $2 million, with some offset from a gain in interest income and state funding, the fiscal staff told the board during a budget work session.

The superintendent has proposed $6.7 million in reductions throughout the budget. Some such as ending 31 teacher mentor positions and phasing out special education program inclusion helpers, are controversial; however, Canavan and her aides say neither service levels nor jobs will be cut.

The mentors will fill existing teacher vacancies, leaving principals, assistant principals, department heads and “other vehicles” under consideration to perform those functions.

“It would be remiss of us if we could not support our teachers, both new and experienced,” Canavan said.

Susan Austin, HCPS director of special education, said the 30 program inclusion helpers that would be eliminated mainly assist teachers and paraprofessionals rather than working with students on a one-to-one basis. If the latter service is needed, it is provided, she said. Even with the proposed reduction, the system would still have almost 50 of those positions.

Unions on alert

The suggested reductions still leave the operating budget short by some $10.9 million, which has raised a red flag among the school system’s 5,000-plus employees, most of whom are represented by five unions with negotiated contracts for pay increases beginning July 1.

All told, the pay increases are estimated to cost approximately $15.4 million, Eric Clark, HCPS budget director, said.

The Harford County Education Association, which represents nearly 2,800 teachers and counselors, is due the largest chunk of the money, approximately $10.9 million, and the other four unions’ contacts essentially are tied to what the teachers get, thus any reductions to that contract could have a ripple effect among all unions, school officials said.

But Voskuhl and other board members insisted that as of the beginning of the week, there had been no discussions among the board members about renegotiating with the unions for a lower settlement. According to HCPS, all such contracts contain a clause making negotiated raises contingent on available funding.

The HCEA contract, which is in its third and final year, calls for a 2 percent cost of living adjustment and salary step increases for those in their first 14 years of teaching. Some, though less than a majority, would receive a second step to make up for when steps were frozen between about 2009 and 2016, according to Ryan Burbey, the HCEA president.

The starting salary of an HCPS teacher with a bachelor’s degree is $45,233.

Steps are the equivalent of about 3 percent of the prior step’s salary. Burbey explained in an email that “steps are earned through completing years of teaching. The main justification is the improvement in ability and effectiveness of teachers over time, as well as, the costs of continuing their education.”

After a teacher completes the steps, they are eligible for longevity increases, currently $2,000, at 19, 24, 29 and 34 years.

Burbey said the school administration has made overtures to the union about renegotiating, in light of the shortfall, something he said HCEA is unwilling to do, believing there are a number of other areas where spending can be reduced, while surpluses he says are built into each budget should be eliminated.

A year ago, HCEA agreed to roll back its negotiated 2 percent cost of living increase to the middle of the year because of a similar shortfall. In most years, he said, the teachers and other unions are being forced to renegotiate, which puts them behind their counterparts in other districts.

One of his members, Mike Curry, who teaches at North Harford Middle School, was more succinct. Speaking at the last board meeting, Curry recalled he was on the union’s negotiating team for the current contract.

“[At] the end we had hope; we had reached a long term deal that made steps to make up what all of us had lost … we had hope, that after all that work, that contact would be honored.”

“We knew we would do our job, would do our part,” he said, looking at the board members. “Ladies and gentlemen, not one single person sitting up there has honored a teachers’ contract during their tenure.

“You have not lived up to your responsibilities, you have not lived up to your commitments, you have not done your job, you have not done your part, and we’re tired of it.”

avought@theaegis.com

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