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."
"[It is] just fundamentally flawed, the entire process of how we go about funding schools in Maryland, and Harford County in particular," Thornton continued.
Instructional facilitators remain
Board member Robert Frisch, who voted against the amended FY14 budget, as did board member Alysson Krchnavy and board President Francis "Rick" Grambo, recalled his own time as an educator and having to spend thousands of dollars of his own money to provide classroom resources.
"The most influential person in a student's life is the teacher that's standing in front of the classroom," he said.
Frisch proposed two amendments cutting funding from the board of education's own budget. He made motions to cut $25,000 from the board's $55,000 line item for legal expenses, which the board voted against, 8-1.
The board voted 6-3 in favor of a second amendment to reduce the $25,000 line item for attending conferences and meetings by $10,000.
Frisch also proposed saving money for teaching positions by eliminating several instructional facilitators, who each make six-figure salaries, and funding six world language teaching positions at the middle school level.
The board voted against the amendment 8-1, however, with Frisch casting the only supporting vote.
He noted the recommendations to reduce school staff "all come from the bottom," which elicited applause from the teachers and school staffers in the audience.
Top school system administrators, including Superintendent Robert Tomback – who is leaving at the end of the month, said the facilitators have had a critical role in supporting teachers and improving classroom instruction, and their assistance is needed as Harford County Public Schools adopts Common Core Standards for its curriculum in the coming years.
School transportation officials recommended during the budget presentation methods of consolidating school bus stops, such as creating a "depot stop," a gathering point students would walk to, rather than having the bus stop at each of their houses, to save on transportation costs.
Tuesday's school system news release explained that "consolidated bus stops" would be set up throughout the county for middle and high school students, consolidated and depot stops would be available for students in magnet school programs and four elementary schools would be added to the elementary schools that already have "fourth tier" bus service, meaning their school day runs from 9:30 a.m. to 4 p.m.
In addition to imposing the new fees to participate in athletics and extracurricular activities, the board also voted to increase the mileage reimbursement rate for field trips from $1.40 to $1.75 and the driver rate from $22 to $25.
The board members did, however, vote to exempt from the new fees children who are approved for free and reduced-price meals, those with parents who are teachers and those with parents in the active-duty military.
Kranefeld, the school system spokesperson, said Tuesday that families have not previously had to pay fees for students to participate in sports or activities, but would have paid for any specific needs not covered by funds raised by a school's booster club or another outside organization.
"Unfortunately, we're in a desperate time, and we're having to choose between some very unpalatable choices," board member Cassandra Beverly said.
Krchnavy opposed raising revenue from the activity and sports fees.
"I just don't think it's the right thing for kids at all, and I don't think it's the right thing for this community," she protested.
School officials provided a list of the sports and activities which the fees would apply to, including football, boys and girls basketball, lacrosse, track and field and cross country and more, as well as activities such as Envirothon, high school band and voice, yearbook, school newspapers, drama and more.
The fees would take effect when the 2013-2014 school year begins in this fall and would be paid to each child's school, Kranefeld explained.
Getting public attention
The audience was largely silent after Grambo adjourned the board meeting.
Standing outside the Roberty Building, Mike Moore, a seventh-grade science teacher at Fallston Middle School, said he had spent 10 years teaching, five in Anne Arundel County and five in Harford.
He said he and his wife moved to Harford when they could afford the cost of living and teaching salaries were comparable to Anne Arundel.
"Now it's to the point where we can't afford to have kids," Moore said.
Emily Briggs, who has spent four years teaching in Harford, came from New Jersey with her husband via the BRAC process. She teaches math and math intervention to sixth-, seventh- and eighth-graders at North Harford Middle School, and chose Harford County Public Schools over Cecil County because of the reputation of the school system and the teachers' union.
"It was a win getting pay-to-play passed," Briggs said of the activity fees. "Hopefully that'll get the community involved and get their attention."
Moore said "it's unfortunate that the county doesn't fully fund education and it forces the (school) board to make tough decisions."
School officials stated they would remain in contact with parents and community members as the details of the changes for next year are put together. Anyone with questions on the budget can e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org, or visit the school system's website at http://www.hcps.org to view a "Frequently Asked Questions" page being developed.Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun