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Where the money comes from for schools [Editorial]

In addressing the Harford County Board of Education earlier this week, Andre Rush, of Abingdon, held up his property tax bill and a check for paying it and was quoted in a report in this newspaper as saying: "I just wanted to remind you of where the money comes from."

He was one of about 200 people who showed up to protest high profile changes made by the board of education with regard to bus transportation to and from school and a requirement that students pay to participate in extracurricular activities.

Parents – and all taxpayers, for that matter – have every reason to be agitated by the performance of the school system when it comes to the transportation cuts and pay-to-play fees for athletics and extracurricular activities.

As an aside, there's also reason to be irritated with county government officials with regard to, in particular, the claim made by County Councilman Dick Slutzky that the Harford County Council is not the funding authority for the county's public school system. The county government provides roughly half of the school system's budget and the county council has special authority under the county charter with regard to school system funding that allows the council to add county funding to the school budget. Slutzky's protest is disingenuous, at best, and just plain wrong at worst. The county executive can giveth to the school budget or taketh away. The county council can only give more, not take it away.

Mr. Rush's point appears, however, to have been lost on Slutzky, members of the school board and a few others in the education community, that point being that parents and other taxpayers are the ultimate "funding authority," to use Councilman Slutzky's words, and the county council and school board are entrusted to be good stewards of that funding.

The actions of the public officials entrusted with stewardship of the school system with regard to the school system's cost savings plans would indicate rather than making the best use of what they've got, they're making moves that appear geared toward getting public attention in an effort to secure more money from the county government.

Make no mistake. The issue of funding for the school system is a contentious one just about every year in Harford County because it involves a large chunk of the money that is paid in property taxes each year, because it involves pay rates for a large group of people, namely teachers and other school system staff, and, most importantly, it involves making sure future generations are equipped with the basic training they need to succeed in life.

On top of that, the school system's money is given in a large chunk by the county council to the school board, which then has broad latitude with regard to how that money is spent within the school system.

In choosing to charge fees for students who want to participate in extracurricular activities, the school system has ensured it will get a lot of attention from parents, even though the annual income from such fees is likely to be a tiny fraction of the school system budget of $424.7 million.

Similarly, the school system is dramatically curtailing the bus transportation offered to students who attend most magnet high school programs. Parents of magnet school students will be faced with getting their kids to a drop-off site and home from the magnet school, which is a fairly substantial burden considering a Math and Science Academy student living in Pylesville will have to get to their home school at North Harford High School to get his or her daily ride clear across the county to Aberdeen five days a week.

While the school system is footing the bill for that substantial transportation need, it was all too willing to make that commitment when it embarked on the magnet schools program a few years back. The effect of the change means that many families who can't provide transportation because of the work schedules of parents will not have the option of sending qualified students to the magnet programs. To some extent, this will make the magnet programs a bit too costly for many people.

The administrators of Harford County Public Schools are expected to have a high level of education and are paid substantially more than the average person to make decisions about how to run the school system. If they can't come up with better solutions than what they've suggested so far for dealing with the same flat budgets – the school system budget allocation for this year is actually marginally larger than it was last year – facing other government operations, maybe we need other folks in those jobs who better understand who pays the money they spend.

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