Pay-to-play ended at Harford Schools [Editorial]

In a budget of $454 million, the estimated $309,500 that would be generated, had the pay-to-play fees not been ended in the Harford County Public Schools budget for the coming year, amounts to just about 0.07 percent.

For the past several years, the school board, urged on by a vocal contingent of teachers, has been advocating that the county government allocate substantial revenue increases to the school system. (Teachers have been clear about their desire to have pay raises, which have been non-existent or small in recent years, and there are certainly arguments to be made that teacher raises should be forthcoming, but that's a subject for another day.)

The school system requests for increases in revenue have come even as enrollment has been slowly, but consistently, decreasing. Granted, a decrease in enrollment at any given school doesn't change the amount of the bills for heating and lighting that building, which likely have increased. Still, the school system has been seeking requests in the range of tens of millions of dollars, year over year, even as county government tax revenues have been largely flat.

This year, the county executive is proposing a buyout for county employees, a move which certainly has at least the scent of a campaign move as he is running for governor. Still, the county's revenue projections this year, as they were last year, are for marginal increases that total less than the total being requested for the schools.

Last year, when the school system did not receive the county allocation it had requested, the board of education voted to take two actions, ostensibly to cover the difference between the increase given to the school system and the much larger increase it had requested. One of those actions was levying fees of $50 per sport and $25 per extracurricular activity on participating students' families.

The anticipated revenue then, as now, was substantially less that $1 million, even as the amount of money the school board was supposedly trying to deal with was well into the millions.

As the board voted to rescind the pay to pay fees earlier this week, school board member Thomas Fitzpatrick made the comment: "I don't believe for one minute that anyone on this school board would have supported activity fees if we had other options."

Actually, if the school system administrators can't figure out how to cut 0.07 percent out of a budget totaling more than $400 million, a good place to start looking for "other options" would be with the people in those administrative positions, many of whom are paid in excess of $90,000 a year, plus benefits.

The other action the school board took last year, which is every bit as onerous as charging students $50 to run cross country or $25 to play in the marching band, was pulling the transportation out from under students attending the school system's various magnet programs.

Designed to offer intensive learning opportunities countywide at single high schools, the magnet program was seen as much as a way of offering something special to students as it was of enhancing the reputations of some of our public schools.

It was estimated that curtailing bus service for magnet school students – as well as the elimination of some regular bus routes – would end up saving more than what the pay-to-play fees brought in, but not all that much more.

It seemed pretty clear a year ago the bus route changes and the pay-to-play fees were little more than moves to attract public attention to the issue of school system funding. To date, while there were protests last year about the two actions, during recent school system budget sessions, there has hardly been a groundswell demanding major increases in county funding for the school system. Rather there have been the usual teachers union pleas for funding increases to pay for teacher raises.

The school system, under the leadership of the board, would do well to take a hard look over the next few weeks at where money is proposed to be spent. After all, the budget the board voted to approve is a request that totals $31 million more than what the school system is expected to spend in this budget year, and the county executive has already indicated he isn't warm to that level of increase.

It's time for the school system administration and the board of education to stop taking financial actions designed to get public attention and start taking a hard look at big ticket items like non-teaching staff positions – be they school-based or administrative HQ-based – and facilities management, among others.

It remains to be seen if the elimination of pay-to-play fees is an indication of such a shift in attitudes, but at least it's a start. Time will tell just how big of a start.

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