Like other government agencies operating in Harford County in the year ahead, the Harford County public school system will have to make due with roughly the same amount of money it had on hand for the current spending year, which draws to a close June 30.
In the fiscal year that starts July 1, the school system had been planning on spending $484.7 million to educate roughly 38,000 students – a number that has declined in small increments over the past several years – during the 2014-15 academic year.
Instead, the school system will have on hand for the new spending year $31.8 million less than was requested from the two main school system funding sources, the state and the county.
Though what the schools will have to spend is less than the requested total, it is slightly more than what was allocated for the current year.
There have been plenty of reasons over the past decade to ponder the state of the school system's budgeting processes. In many years the system has received increases that have outstripped inflation, even as enrollment numbers were inching down. There have been increases in fixed costs – fuel, electricity and such – over which the school system has had no control, but other government agencies have been obliged to deal with the same kinds of increases.
Moreover, it is possible to make cuts to programs in certain fields of government with little or no public perception that anything has changed, but if class sizes increase to more than 30 students per class, parents notice.
The school system in Harford County is at a critical juncture in its administrative history, and how it handles the $31.8 million difference between what it asked for and what it got will serve as something of a test for the new operation.
The county has a new superintendent, who has spent an entire career with the system, which presumably puts her in a better position than her predecessor for identifying where cuts to program plans can be made with minimal impact. If cuts are made in such a fashion, not only will students and parents hardly notice, it will be in sharp contrast to the tactics of the previous superintendent.
During the administration of Superintendent Robert Tomback, when the school system's budget request was not fully covered by the county and the state, high profile services or programs were cut or altered. Last year, Tomback's final as superintendent, saw a dramatic scaling back of school bus service, as well as the levying of pay to play fees for extracurricular activities. The changes made up only a fraction of the difference between what the school system had asked for and what it got, so as a budgeting strategy, it was fairly hollow. It did, however, get the attention of parents, who have rarely passed up the opportunity to express their well-founded dissatisfaction with the moves.
Tomback's departure came when his contract with the school system expired and he didn't seek a renewal.
This likely signals a shift in the dynamic on the Harford County Board of Education, which is responsible for hiring – and on occasion firing – superintendents. The shift, meanwhile, is likely the result in the board having a much more high-profile role than in years past for the simple reason that now most of its members either have been elected or will end up facing the voters for the first time this year.
Since its inception, the school board in Harford County had been appointed by the governor and responsible for overseeing a budget whose revenues were generated through the actions of other public officials. On the whole, board members tended to view their primary responsibility as ensuring that education didn't suffer for want of money. At best, fiscal scrutiny of the budget has been a second or third tier concern.
With a board that is beholden to all the voters of the county, rather than just parents and teachers, the dynamic is bound to shift eventually so as to bring fiscal responsibility to the forefront. That didn't happen with this budget. The request – denied at the county level – reflected what school administrators asked for, but was approved by the board.
Which brings us to the matter of how the board – and the administrators led by the superintendent – will deal with the $31.8 million that has been sought but not allocated.
Ever sensitive to uproars among voting constituents, members of the Harford County Council – which has the authority to allocate the $31.8 million to the school system that had been left out – made it clear they are sticking with the budget as presented. No increase.
The tactic of curtailing bus schedules and charging fees for extra-curricular activities (fees that were repealed for the next academic year) resulted in no softening of the county government's line on school spending.
Such signals, however, haven't always been read with clarity by people in public office, and it may be that the $31.8 million shortfall results in some high profile program cuts made more to cause public chaffing than to actually get the numbers in line. Generally things that result in public outrage involve cutting arts, music, extracurricular activities and programs for advanced students.
If, however, reality is beginning to set in, the school system will take a hard look at some of the non-teaching management and quasi-management positions it has in the schools and at the administrative headquarters and ponder phasing out some of these functions.
Also, savings may be realized through curtailing spending authority granted to principals, which adds up in a school system with more than 50 schools.
In an agency with an annual operating budget that totals about $450 million, the sum of $31.8 million amounts to roughly 7 percent of the total. Making budget shifts to account for a 7 percent change in projected funding isn't necessarily easy, but neither is it insurmountable.
As a practical matter, most of the funding shortfall the school system made up in the current fiscal year came as a result of changes that prompted little or no public outcry, even as the bus route and pay to pay policies got a lot of attention.
If the same kind of changes can be made this year – minus changes that have the flavor of intentional irritants – it may signal a more mature approach to budgeting on the part of the school system.