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Harford teachers union head critical of county executive [Letter]

FinanceBudgets and BudgetingLocal GovernmentDavid R. Craig

The following was sent to Harford County Executive David R. Craig. A copy was provided for publication.

After reading your recent letters, I find myself once again obliged to respond to your comments. It is crucial that the current funding crisis facing our schools not be misconstrued or minimized.

Your delineation of the roles and responsibilities of local boards of education as related to governmental bodies is quite accurate. It is very true that local boards of education are intended to be autonomous bodies. County governments across the state must, and in most cases do, find ways to work cooperatively with their boards of education to facilitate efficient operations, which serve both the needs of students and the general citizens alike.

It is also true that the funding provided to HCPS by the state of Maryland has varied slightly year to year, with this year being the most extreme reduction to date. Historically, the state of Maryland has contributed more to the education of Harford County's children than Harford County Government. In FY 2013, the state of Maryland contributed 49.2 percent compared to Harford County's total contribution of 46.4 percent. State funding is determined by a wealth-based formula. Between 2006 and 2013, Harford County's wealth per pupil increased by 61 percent. As our measured wealth has grown, Harford County has been expected to accept more responsibility for the cost of educating our children. Unfortunately, local school funding by percent of budget, has declined during this same time frame.

While no one can question the Harford County Council's commitment to building new schools to replace our aging educational infrastructure, the staffing and enrollment levels you cite are circumspect. Previously, you stated, "HCPS has increased its staff by over 650 positions even though school enrollment has declined by over 2,300 students." Now, you state, "Over this same time period, the Board of Education has increased its staffing levels by over 550 employees, while student enrollment has decreased by 2,500 students."

On May 28th, The Aegis reported HCPS staff had increased by 343 positions since FY2006. In the same article, The Aegis reported that enrollment has declined by 2,344. HCPS reports that from 2005 to 2014, a total of 434.8 positions have been added, many of which were required by law to meet the needs of special education students. Also, please note that HCPS has decreased staffing by nearly 200 positions over the course of the past two years.

It is true that during your [Harford County Executive Craig's] tenure as county executive, funding for HCPS has increased. You cite an overall increase of 26 percent. However, you fail to provide important background to this increase. In 2005, HCPS was ranked 24th out of 24 Maryland jurisdictions in school funding. In fact, no county in the state of Maryland spent less per pupil than Harford County in the years 2002 through 2005. In 2006, HCPS was ranked 23rd in school funding. It is also important to note that Harford County revenue has increased dramatically since 2006. According to the FY 2006 Harford County Budget, Harford County General Fund Revenue was $379,987,329 The FY 2014 Harford County Budget, lists General Fund Revenue as $493,855,941 That is an increase of 76 percent. Why hasn't HCPS funding increased in proportion to the increase in general fund revenue?

Funding for HCPS currently is 45 percent of the general fund. In 2006, funding for HCPS accounted for 46 percent. While 1 percent may not seem like much, that is a yearly loss of millions of dollars to our schools. This year, that 1 percent difference amounts to about $4.9 million. These funds could have helped HCPS avoid making austere cuts to transportation and implementing pay to play. In FY 2013, HCPS was ranked 19th in per pupil finding.

Correspondingly, had you honored the $21 million requested increase, HCPS would only have climbed to 15th in total per pupil expenditures, compared to our ranking of 11th in wealth per pupil. Likewise, we would still trail our closest competitors in Baltimore County by over $100 per pupil. In FY 2013, only five counties spent less per pupil than Harford County Public Schools.

Your recent letter again suggests a false choice of either properly funding education and increasing taxes or leaving tax rates consistent and maintaining your short-sighted trend of under funding education. This is not an honest presentation of the current situation. More than anything else budgets reflect the priorities of our leaders. It remains clear that education simply is not your priority. In 2004 under County Executive [Jim] Harkins, HCPS received 49 percent of General Fund Revenues. In 2006 under your leadership, funding for HCPS accounted for just 46 percent of General Fund Revenues. Your FY 2014 Budget allocates only 45 percent to Harford County Public Schools.

If you truly value education as you repeatedly contend, why do you insist on continually decreasing the percent of Harford County funds allocated to our public schools?

You state, "Spending fund balance money on expenses that will recur and compound year after year without an offsetting revenue source is not a responsible budgeting practice for a funding authority such as county government." Why then do you continually force HCPS to spend its fund balance by refusing to meet its budget request? If funding does not increase significantly, HCPS projects that its unallocated fund balance, which was over $16 million in 2012, will be completely expended by as early as 2016. This will leave HCPS with another huge deficit in funding, which if not offset by increases in revenue, will necessitate even more invasive cuts.

The June 30, 2012 Harford County Government Fiscal Report indicates that governmental revenues exceeded expenditures by $13.1 million. Couldn't a portion of this have been allocated to schools? The same fiscal report also shows a General Fund Balance of $98.7 million. The June 2011 Fiscal Report indicates a General Fund Balance of $96.8 million. The June 2010 Fiscal report indicates a General Fund Balance of $79.3 million. The June 2009 Fiscal report indicates a General Fund Balance of $69.9 million. The June 2008 Fiscal report indicates a General Fund Balance of $78.9 million. These numbers would tend to imply that Harford County has at least $13 to 30 million of rolling unallocated fund balance in excess of historically acceptable fund balances. Had even a small portion of this been allocated to HCPS, "pay to play," as well as the current austerity cuts to transportation and employee salaries would not have been necessary.

You also state, "I do not question the Board members' dedication to education in any way. I do, however, question their judgment in this case." However, by questioning "their judgment in this case," you call into question their dedication. Perhaps you have done so unwittingly but to imply that members of the Harford County Board of Education, have deliberately imposed changes which will directly impact students at a whim, is reckless and without merit; especially considering that HCPS has frozen salaries and neglected to meet their contractual demands in four out of the past five years; desperately attempting to avoid these kinds of cuts. It is also odd that only after HCPS has been forced to implement multiple salary freezes, a reduction in force and other austere cuts which will impact every student, family and HCPS employee, do you finally offer your assistance.

I know you have many divergent concerns to address in your role as county executive, as well as, an on-going gubernatorial campaign to run. I can only hope that the errors in reporting data within your letters are simply oversights. I can only hope that your lack of attention to the needs of our students and schools is simply a misunderstanding rather than politically motivated intent. I hope that your current stance truly originates from a desire to seek solutions rather than deflect blame and point fingers at your fellow leaders on the Harford County Board of Education. I truly hope that you legitimately are seeking to reach a compromise and solution, which meets the needs of our students, teachers and community. I pray you have the vision to see beyond political rhetoric, seeking real solutions to the funding crisis facing our schools. Our children, parents, teachers and community deserve better than the rancor and intransigence, which has dominated the past several years.

While the challenges facing our county and schools are great, we can find solutions if our leaders resist the urge to demagogue important issues like the funding crisis currently jeopardizing the quality of public education in Harford County. I again call on you to work in concert with HCPS, the Harford County Board of Education, the Harford County Council, HCEA, and other stakeholders to craft a solution to this monumental problem.

Ryan Burbey

President, Harford County Education Association

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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FinanceBudgets and BudgetingLocal GovernmentDavid R. Craig
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