Harford school leaders urge public participation in budget process

Harford County school leaders received an earful Monday night from parents and students frustrated with new athletic and activity fees, as well as several support employees, angered over exemptions from paying the fee granted to children of teachers.

Lengthy public comment sessions have become common at Harford County Board of Education meetings since board members voted 6-3 on June 10 to implement the fees, consolidate school bus routes, cut employee positions and cancel funding for employee salary increases to balance the Harford County Public Schools budget for the 2013-2014 fiscal year, which began July 1.

Monday's public comment portion lasted for more than an hour.

Hillary Doherty, a Bel Air Elementary School parent and member of the school's Parent-Teacher Association, spoke about how Bel Air's placement on a fourth-tier schedule, with late start times of 9:30 a.m. and dismissal times of 4 p.m., has affected her family's life.

She said the school bus her son, a fourth-grader, rides has arrived late to pick him up in the mornings, leaving him without adequate time to prepare for school. She said the late dismissal times have made it difficult for families to attend after-school activities at Bel Air Elementary, or local high school games.

"I will be attending every board meeting I possibly can, as you have stated that you would like to hear from parents early and often," Doherty told board members. "I hope you will listen and help alleviate the burden our entire school system is facing with fourth-tier busing."

Lisa Hebb, of Abingdon, has children in Harford County middle and high schools who must walk to the bus stop with their fellow students through a neighborhood where about 20 registered sex offenders live.

"Our children are standing on a busy street far from the watchful eye of parents," she said.

Students participating in magnet programs at high schools outside their home communities could get school bus transportation from their homes to their magnet schools in previous years, but now must travel to a "depot stop" at the high school in their neighborhoods, if they want to ride the bus.

Kaitlyn Roush, a senior in the Math and Science Academy at Aberdeen High School, addressed the school board with her friend and fellow magnet student, Alyssa Chalmin, a junior.

Kaitlyn lives in Street and Alyssa lives in Bel Air. Kaitlyn told the board about a friend who wants to drop out of the SMA program because of the difficulty of losing hours of homework time while waiting for the bus at a depot stop, issues she and Alyssa are also dealing with.

"She feels that the workload and the issues with the transportation are just too much for her and her family to deal with on a daily basis," Kaitlyn said later.

Members of the Harford County Educational Services Council protested the board's decision to allow children of teachers and other positions, which are part of the "bargaining unit" represented by the Harford County Education Association, as well as active-duty military members and those eligible for free and reduced meals to be exempt from paying a $50 athletic and $25 extracurricular participation fee.

The Harford County Educational Services Council is the union charged with representing support staff such as inclusion helpers, school nurses and school secretaries.

"By exempting only members under the HCEA bargaining unit, you have discriminated against the lowest-paid employees in your system and made us feel as though we are not appreciated for our efforts to keep your system running," HCESC President Victoria Bridges stated.

Members of the school board and top administrative officials have urged parents to get involved in the nearly year-long process of developing the school system budget for the 2015 fiscal year.

School leaders pressed that point again Monday.

"Continue to come out, participate, give us your comments, so that we know what your priorities are," board member Cassandra Beverley said. "We try to do all that we can to try to have the least impact on the classroom."

Beverley said changes such as fees and bus route consolidations were implemented to avert a major impact on students' classrooms, to avoid cutting significant numbers of teachers and increasing class sizes in an area which is critical to child development.

"In the beginning, while the changes are being implemented there have been problems," she explained. "However, as those problems have been brought to the attention of the staff, they are working diligently to try to minimize and mitigate the effects."

Interim Superintendent Barbara Canavan also urged the public to take part in the budget process, and school officials are developing methods to allow for greater public participation.

"This is about the kids and what's best for them," Canavan said.

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