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Harford school officials defend bus service cuts, new fees in face of more criticism Monday

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Harford County Public Schools leaders Monday defended budget decisions which have been extremely unpopular with parents and students and have touched off a fight with the county executive.

About 100 people attended an evening school board meeting in Bel Air where two high ranking school staff members gave a presentation that one called "budgeting 101" and parents continued to criticize planned bus service cuts and new pay-to-play fees for sports and other activities.

Minutes before the meeting started, and in anticipation that school officials would not back away from the position, Harford County Executive David Craig released to the public a lengthy letter to school officials in which he claims the system has more than $25 million in reserve, of which at least $13 million is not obligated for any purpose. School officials later refuted the claim about the surplus.

The letter, addressed to school board President Nancy Reynolds, states that school officials had rebuffed Craig's call for them to work collaboratively with him to find alternative solutions to a revenue shortfall of some $20 million that school officials claim is the county government's doing. It also acknowledged there have been private meetings on the issue between the two sides over the past few weeks.

"I left our initial meetings feeling very hopeful that we could address both the short and long term issues related to the school system's budget," Craig wrote. "Unfortunately, my offer to sit with you and school system staff in order to try to work through these issues and to publicly embark upon a more collaborative working relationship between our two agencies was politely declined at this time."

The letter, which was read by a Craig aide during the board meeting, also listed several areas of the school budget that Craig wrote are in effect padded with projected expenses, such as legal services, that historically have not been met with actual expenditures.

Bus cutback concerns

In all, 23 people spoke Monday either about the bus service cuts or new fees or on other budget issues.

"I understand the need for financial accountability, and I don't have an answer, and that's why we ask you to all to work for us and stand up for our children," said Thomas Scher of Bel Air, who told board members his three children, who previously could take the bus to Patterson Mill Middle and High School, will have to walk 1.6 miles to school when the 2013-2014 year begins.

Three members of the Trulli family of Abingdon spoke against the changes to the bus routes, including the father, Tom, and his sons, Matthew, 12, and Dominic, 15.

"These kids need to get to and from school safely," Trulli said. "Safety's the biggest concern."

Matthew, a rising seventh grader at St. Joan of Arc School in Aberdeen, spoke in defense of his brother, who is a rising junior in the Science and Mathematics Academy magnet program at Aberdeen High School, one of three magnet programs in which students will have to either travel to a "depot stop" to get a bus to their magnet school, or find their own transportation.

Matthew said the decision has "caused a lot of stress" in his family, and the resulting "chaos" has caused him to rethink his desire to take part in a magnet program during high school.

Dominic said he had worked hard during middle school to earn a spot at the academy, arguably Harford's signature magnet program.

"I have lived up to my end... I would hope that you would live up to your promise of providing me safe and reasonable transportation to and from my school," he told school board members.

Grace Capacio, 16 and a rising junior in the Science and Math Academy, resides in Joppatowne. She told the board members she fears walking to a depot stop past several residences in the community where known sex offenders live.

Grace said she feels like her family is being punished even though her parents "work to help me get a better education, to help me have a brighter future."

$20 million dispute

Earlier in the session Joe Licata, chief of administration, and Jim Jewell, assistant superintendent for business services, explained why school officials had decided on the actions they did. At issue is the more than $22 million in additional county funding the school board requested from the county for the 2013-14 school year, of which Craig and the Harford County Council declined to fund, except for $1.5 million. Even so, next year's school operating budget will be almost $425 million, of which $221 million will come from the county.

"The board of education does not appropriate funds," Licata explained. "It requests them."

Licata said revenue has decreased by $6.1 million, including a loss of more than $4 million in state funding, while expenses are expected to increase by more than $15 million in the coming school year.

Robert Thomas, a onetime chief spokesman for Craig and a former school board president who has acted as the county executive's education liaison, read Craig's letter detailing how he and his staff had met with board members and worked to find ways to save money.

"I sincerely hope that we can forge a more collaborative relationship over the coming months, because our children deserve better," the letter concluded.

Board member James Thornton took issue with several claims in Craig's letter, especially the claim of a total fund balance of $25 million, with about $13 million unassigned, meaning money the school system can use how it sees fit.

Thornton noted the county executive's figures were drawn from the school system's Comprehensive Annual Financial Report for June 30, 2012, regarding the 2012 fiscal year – essentially two budgets back, "so it represents a point in time."

Jewell gave more detail on what he called the "$25 million supposed fund balance," at the request of Thornton and Reynolds, the board president.

He explained that a majority of the funds have been used to help balance the school budgets for the 2013 and 2014 fiscal years, and noted about $7 million is sitting in a county government fund for health care needs, "if we have a dramatic increase in claims, so that money is not even sitting in our hands."

"There is no $13 million or $25 million laying around unused," he explained.

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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