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Teacher raises out of final Harford school budget, but no job cuts planned

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Harford County's superintendent of schools presented a revised $426.9 million budget for next school year Wednesday night that would avoid any job cuts, but would also cancel pay raises negotiated with teachers and other employees and bring back the controversial "pay-to-play" fee.

Superintendent Barbara Canavan called her revised budget "nothing short of a miracle," because there won't be any layoffs.

"Nobody loses a job, nobody," she told members of the Harford County Board of Education during a budget review meeting in Bel Air.

In addition to killing any proposed raises for teachers and other employees, Canavan offered other cost cutting measures, such as eliminating some summer school programs, and revenue boosting measures, such as charging tuition for summer programs that remain and a fee to participate in interscholastic athletics.

After a lengthy debate, however, the board voted, 6-3, to table final action on the budget until its next scheduled meeting Monday night.

The budget session lasted slightly more than three hours and included about an hour of public comments, as 16 parents and teachers urged board members to raise teacher salaries.

Teachers, whose bargaining unit includes about 2,300 of the school system's 5,300 employees, had earlier negotiated a 1 percent cost of living increase and a step raise which equates to an additional 3 percent, depending on an employee's seniority.

That deal and similar ones negotiated by some of the other employee unions were, however, in jeopardy once county officials acted on their own budget, whose funding for the school system is far less than what school officials had requested.

"I believe in my heart with the utmost sincerity that we can work together with our elected officials and our community to put Harford County Schools back on the map," Canavan said.

Many revisions

Canavan and her staff spent the past week revising their original $454.1 million budget, approved by the school board during the winter, to reflect the impact of the Harford County Council's May 27 vote on a final $627.5 million county operating budget, which County Executive David Craig signed Tuesday.

The county budget allocates $223.6 million for the school system, about $2.3 million more than the county allocated for the 2014 fiscal year, but far less than the $31 million increase school officials had requested.

In addition to the local funding, state funding stands at $194.04 million, $35,100 less than requested; federal funding remains the same at $390,000.

The school system will also receive $3.3 million from various sources under the heading "other," which is $422,000 more than requested.

School officials will use $5.5 million of fund balance – surpluses from previous years – to close what they said is a structural deficit in the new budget. They initially proposed to use $3.5 million in fund balance, according to Canavan's staff presentation.

"We're using $5.5 million just to keep us even," Jim Jewell, assistant superintendent for business services, told the board. "It doesn't give us raises; it doesn't give us anything else."

Jewell noted the increased county funding would go toward teacher pension obligations and to cover $1.8 million of a $3.1 million increase in health and dental insurance costs.

While school officials were able to preserve most of their current workforce, several board members said they regretted not being able to provide raises, something they said they would love to do if the money was available.

Jean Mantegna, assistant superintendent for human resources, said about 200 employees are leaving voluntarily at the end of the school year.

Reductions include $13.7 million for salary increases and $2.8 million that had been budgeted for employee turnover, plus smaller measures.

Canavan proposed ending summer school programs for elementary and middle school students, which will save $204,000 and $177,600, respectively.

Transportation will be ended for the remaining high school summer school programs, which will save $125,320, according to the superintendent's presentation to the board.

Canavan also proposed charging $350 tuition per student in the high school summer school and Bridge Plan for Academic Validation, the latter which offers remedial courses in preparation for high school assessment tests.

More 'pay-to-play'

The proposal to re-institute a sports activity fee did not address how much the fee might be, or if it would apply to clubs and other non-athletic extracurricular activities.

The fee that was put into effect this school year was $50 for athletics and $25 for other activities. It quickly became known as "pay-to-play" and was so widely ridiculed by parents and politicians, the school board voted narrowly last winter to cancel the fee for the coming school year after Canavan wanted to continue it in her original 2015 budget proposal. The revenue estimated was $309,000.

School board members who supported postponing a final vote on the budget Wednesday – James Thornton, Joseph Hau, Alysson Krchnavy, Cassandra Beverley, Robert Frisch and Arthur Kaff – said they wanted to give the public time to review the final budget, which Canavan was making public for the first time Wednesday night.

"Part of me does want to make the decision today and get this decision over and done with, but there is great value in transparency," Kaff said.

Board President Nancy Reynolds, Vice President Francis "Rick" Grambo and member Thomas Fitzpatrick voted against a postponement.

Fitzpatrick noted the public would only have a few days anyway to review amendments proposed by Canavan and her staff to close the $27.2 million gap between what school officials requested and what they received from state, federal and local funding sources.

He said school officials have been soliciting community input on the budget since September.

"I think we know everything that we need to know to vote on this now," he said.

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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