Harford County school leaders spent Monday evening eliminating jobs and planned employee raises, imposing new activity fees and taking other steps to reduce what they hoped to spend in the next school year.
Members of the Board of Education voted 6-3 in favor of a $424.7 million budget, one they balanced by eliminating 115 teaching and other staff positions, removing a $7.7 million package of employee salary increases, changing bus routes and imposing fees to participate in interscholastic sports and extracurricular activities.
They approved a $50 per-sports season fee to participate in interscholastic sports and a $25 fee per extracurricular activity, although some exceptions will be made for students from lower income families.
The actions were taken despite impassioned pleas from the head of Harford County's teachers' union, several teachers and parents and even two Bel Air Middle School students who had obtained 85 signatures on a petition to save their teacher's job.
School officials stated in a news release Tuesday that 46 current employees would be lost through "reduction in force," and the remaining positions would be eliminated through "attrition," or employees leaving of their own accord.
Budget staffers with Harford County Public Schools told the board Monday the revenue-generating measures would save 12.5 teaching positions.
Teri Kranefeld, manager of communications for the school district, said 5,369 employees were on the payroll as of Tuesday, not including substitutes.
'Fear for future'
"I fear for the future of the quality of education of Harford County," Greg Plotycia, 36-year veteran Harford County teacher, said during the public comment portion of Monday night's board business meeting.
Those and other comments were made at the beginning of a public meeting which lasted at least three hours and included spirited debate and a series of amendments from school board members. Earlier in the evening, the board had convened in a closed session, lasting more than an hour, for the purpose of discussing collective bargaining and receiving advice from legal counsel.
Plotycia said he had spoken with teachers who are planning to leave Harford County because of the non-competitive wage and benefit packages, a threat often heard at budget time in Harford, where teacher salaries have stagnated in recent years.
"There once was a time when I would have tried to persuade these teachers to reconsider that possibility, but unfortunately I cannot do that," he said.
$21.2 million increase sought
School board members argued the reductions and fees to increase revenue were necessary because Harford County Executive David Craig and the members of the Harford County Council declined to fully fund school officials' request for $241 million in local funds for the next fiscal year, a $21.2 million increase – 9.6 percent – over what the school system currently receives from the county.
The Harford County Public Schools budget is supported by state, local and federal funding sources, but approximately half the funding comes from the county.
County officials put in about $21.1 million less than what school officials said they needed, and with reduced state aid and lower federal aid expected, school leaders had to determine how they would close the gap between the budget they had approved earlier in the year and one they actually had enough money to fund.
"The buck stops here, but we don't have control of the bucks," board member Thomas Fitzpatrick said.
Fitzpatrick and other board members stressed to the audience that packed the meeting room in the A.A. Roberty Building in Bel Air that they did "their level best" to convince county leaders to fully fund the school system's request, to no avail.
"Be in no doubt that everyone on this board did everything that they could to keep your best interests at heart," he said.
Board member James Thornton said the process had been "gut wrenching."