A Fountain Green Elementary School parent and her daughter pleaded with the members of the Harford County Board of Education Wednesday evening to provide funding to ensure children at her daughter's school have all the educational technology they need.
"Please help my friends and me so that we can all learn together in the computer lab," Caleigh Abbe, a fourth-grader at the Bel Air-area school, told board members.
She and her mother, Maureene, spoke during a budget input session hosted by the members of the school board at the A.A. Roberty Building in Bel Air Wednesday evening.
They were the only two speakers, but at least 30 other Fountain Green parents attended the meeting in the school board meeting room, and they stood to show their support when asked by Maureene Abbe, who spoke on behalf of the school's Parent-Teacher Association.
It was the fourth and final public input session the school board hosted this week as Harford County Public Schools officials develop their budget for the 2014-2015 fiscal year, which begins July 1.
The proposed operating budget, as submitted by Interim Superintendent Barbara Canavan, is $484.7 million. It is $31.8 million, or 7 percent, higher than the current fiscal year.
A previous public input session held last week at Havre de Grace High School, was followed by sessions Monday at the Center for Educational Opportunity in Aberdeen and the Roberty Building and Wednesday afternoon at Mountain Christian Church in Joppa.
Attendance at the previous sessions was low, and school officials said there were only two speakers at the Mountain Christian Church meeting.
Members of the public can still submit comments online by visiting http://www.hcps.org/budget or sending an e-mail to firstname.lastname@example.org.
The school board is scheduled to vote on their budget Jan. 27; it will then be forwarded to the county executive's office.
Caleigh related a short anecdote Wednesday evening, regarding how not all of the members of her class can use the Bel Air-area school's one computer lab, and that there are four computers outside the lab.
"One time the entire lab and the extra computers were all full," she said. "I had to sit all by myself at a library computer and I couldn't share any of my ideas with my classmates."
Caleigh said she had to leave her computer and go back to the lab to ask her teacher any questions; she also had to complete her work while activities went on around her in the library.
"The next time we went back to the lab, my friend Bella had to sit at the library computers all by herself," Caleigh recalled.
Her mother, who read from prepared remarks, provided stark details on the technology situation at Fountain Green, including 21 computers in one "fixed lab," plus 51 computers spread over two mobile labs, 51 for the whole school, whose enrollment this year is 521 students.
She noted Homestead-Wakefield Elementary received $250,000 from the county during last year's budget process, which has fulfilled that school's technology needs.
"Although we do not doubt their need was legitimate, their students are no more deserving of a quality education than our children at Fountain Green," she said.
Abbe requested funding for "wireless network infrastructure" and enough mobile devices for a 1-to-3 ratio of computers to children.
School officials are working to find the money to equip all schools with wireless infrastructure, and provide enough hardware, in anticipation of the implementation of the electronic PARCC standardized testing across the state next year.
"The main thing is equity," Abbe said after the session. "Some [schools] have great technology and some don't, and we just want to make sure that everybody has equal opportunity for education."
School system budget staff provided detailed descriptions of the sections of the proposed FY2015 budget, going through each section of the 526-page "budget book."
Budget staffers covered the first half during Monday's budget work session and the second half Wednesday.
Canavan, school board members and senior staffers spoke at length about "unfunded mandates" passed down by state and federal authorities – the school system must provide programs and services required by state and federal law, but the local government and school district often picks up a large share of the cost.
Board member James Thornton said all 24 of Maryland's school districts must deal with this situation.
He encouraged representatives of those districts to contact their state legislators and "to be more vocal in expressing what appears to be on the face of it just unfair to the jurisdictions."
As an example, the school system, like school systems across the country, is required by the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act to provide a proper education to students with special needs.
Ann-Marie Spakowski, director of special education for Harford County Public Schools, said children and young adults from the ages of two weeks to 21 years can receive services.
She noted that, while the number of special education students has decreased, more students are coded as having "multiple" special needs.
"That is very intensive on the staff," Spakowski said. "The students have intensive needs and we have to continually look at our class sizes."
Federal and state funding for services such as special needs education and providing pre-kindergarten services is not always forthcoming, and the local government picks up the remainder of the tab.
Jim Jewell, assistant superintendent for business services, told board members that "we don't make the rules," that school officials must follow the direction of the governor and General Assembly.
"If they don't provide money, and when the mandate comes down to us, the unfunded mandate, we have to abide by it, and if we don't get county money to cover something we have to take whatever county money we get, and that gets first call because that's a federal and state mandate," he explained.
Canavan said school superintendents have been "very vocal" with state education officials about the unfunded mandates, and she encouraged school leaders to bring up those matters when they visit Annapolis later this month.
"We want to do what's right for every child and have every child prepared... wherever they happen to be, but we cannot do this without the proper funding," she said.