Harford school leaders go before County Council, defend budget request

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Harford County Public Schools Superintendent Barbara Canavan, who has prepared the final budget of her four-year tenure, told County Council members Monday she understands she cannot ask them to shift more funding to meet all of the needs enumerated in the school system’s budget request for fiscal 2019.

“You know and I know that the only way you’re giving us any more assistance is to take it away from somebody else, and what am I supposed to say, ‘Do that’?” Canavan asked during a nearly two-hour work session on the $466.2 million operating budget request Monday morning.

The budget request, as prepared by Canavan and approved by the school board, includes a request of $263.6 million from the county, an increase of $24.9 million from the current fiscal year.

The majority of the increase, $15.5 million, will cover the final year of a three-year agreement with its employee unions to increase salaries that school officials said have been lagging in recent years.

School officials do not expect their budget request will be fully funded, meaning there is the potential for cuts in personnel and programs. The council, which has the final say on the county budget, can shift funds from one department to another, or it can find additional revenue by raising taxes.

“People need to understand that when there isn’t anything there, you’ve got the find the money, and the way you find the money is you have to cut back on people and you have to cut back on programming,” Canavan said.

Harford County Executive Barry Glassman has submitted a nearly $900 million combined operating and capital budget request for fiscal 2019, and he has not proposed any tax increases.

Glassman has allocated $245.8 million for the schools, a $7.1 million increase from this year’s budget. He said, when introducing the budget last week, that $6.4 million of that increase had been “fenced off” for instructional salaries.

Glassman’s allocation is $17.8 million less than the amount requested by the school system. The council does have the authority under state law to close that gap, although it would need to take funds from other departments or approve a tax increase.

School system leaders will “do our best to make it work” with the amount they ultimately receive from the county and state, Canavan said. Final funding has historically been much lower than what is requested to meet a growing cost of educating a student body that has been shrinking for many years and is starting to add small numbers of pupils.

There are more than 37,500 HCPS students in 54 schools, in a system that has about 5,000 employees.

“The students are OK, they’re successful, the teachers are OK, we’re able to give them compensation, but the reality of the whole entire thing is — for a lack of a better phrase — I feel like Old Mother Hubbard,” Canavan said. “There’s nothing in the cupboard, we’re using every single thing that we have.”

Councilman Patrick Vincenti asked what programs are being cut. Canavan said she does not yet know what will be cut for next year, as she and her top aides are still working on the final budget, but she pledged to let the council know.

“We’re going to try to hold on to everything we can, but it’s going to be difficult,” she said. “We have what we have, we were given what we were given, and we’ve got to make it work.”

She and other HCPS leaders defended how the school system develops its budget based on its needs and its costs.

Councilman Mike Perrone suggested using “zero-based budgeting” when creating a request.

“It kind of stands alone by itself and doesn’t really have to be evaluated in the context of prior budgets,” he said.

Perrone clarified that he does not think the school system should use zero-based budgeting every year, but he said it could help if done every five, eight or 10 years for the benefit of “us lay people that are supposed to pick this apart.”

Deborah Judd, assistant superintendent for business services, said starting from zero and seeking funding for all school system needs would make the budget request even larger.

“We are excluding things purposefully from our budget because we know there will be no additional funding for those items, so they’re not in the budget to begin with,” Judd said.

Joseph Licata, chief of administration, said HCPS has been in an “extreme cutting mode the last five to six years because the revenues have not kept pace with our increased cost of doing business.”

He said the “bulk” of the $21 million increase in the total request, from fiscal 2018 to fiscal 2019, covers “what we need to pay our bills.”

He, along with Canavan, said the school system has cut teaching and administrative positions, as well as programs, over the years. There are a few additional positions in next year’s budget request, such as a pupil personnel worker and a guidance counselor.

Canavan said those new positions are “like a drop in the ocean for what we really need.”

School officials also propose providing in-county services to students with special needs, which come with an increased cost, but it is still less expensive than transporting students to facilities out of Harford County for their programs, Licata said.

“Honestly, we’ve been in a zero-based budget scenario for the last several years because the increases have just not come about in revenues — from all sources,” Licata said.

Harford County and HCPS leaders expressed frustration with the state for not providing more funds to local school districts for operating and capital expenditures — Billy Boniface, director of administration for the county government, said the county is covering 80 percent of the cost for the Havre de Grace Middle/High School, for which ground was broken April 12.

Gov. Larry Hogan has also pledged millions of dollars for school safety improvements across the state, following deadly school shootings earlier this year in Parkland, Fla., and in St. Mary’s County, although local leaders expressed concerns about how much will come to Harford County.

Glassman has committed $1.2 million in his budget for security upgrades and for the Harford County Sheriff’s Office to hire enough school resource officers for all middle and high schools.

The council is holding public work sessions through April 30, in the council chambers in Bel Air as representatives of each entity funded by the county explain their budget requests. The representatives field comments and questions from the council and its seven-member citizen Budget Advisory Board.

Public hearings are scheduled for May 3 and May 9, both beginning at 7 p.m., in the council chambers at 212 S. Bond St.

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