More computers sought for aging Harford schools

Some Harford County residents want the Harford County Board of Education to rethink its priorities on such matters as buying new computers and replacing aging school building, they said at a public input session Monday night in Bel Air on the school system's proposed budget for fiscal year 2014.

About 50 people attended the session, the next to the last the board will hold before it gives its final approval to its budget in the coming weeks. A final public input session is scheduled for Wednesday at the A.A. Roberty Building, 102 S. Hickory Ave. in Bel Air, beginning at 6 p.m.

Mary Harris, president of the Homestead/Wakefield Parent Teacher Association, began the public comment portion of Monday's session by speaking about the need for increased access to computers and up-to-date technology, noting that Homestead/Wakefield Elementary School in Bel Air is behind in this regard.

"Where is it that we have gone so far askew with our priorities that we are more concerned with school parity when it comes to funding state-of-the-art athletic fields than we are with technology?" Harris asked.

Harris, who has spoken a previous sessions about the need for equitable technology resources at all schools, went on to request additional funding for computers for Homestead-Wakefield Elementary. She added that her repeated requests to education officials to find how many computers were in use at the county's 30 elementary schools had so far not received a response.

Harford County Councilman Jim McMahan spoke after Harris, echoing her call for new computers at older schools in the county. McMahan's council district covers the greater Bel Air area.

"My concern is that some of the older schools like Homestead-Wakefield are lagging behind in having the same opportunities in learning computer skills than in the newer schools, mainly because of the number of computers that can be accommodated," McMahan said.

McMahan requested that the older schools in the county, including Homestead-Wakefield, receive the funding necessary to meet the county's own criteria of one student for every 2.9 computers.

"At Homestead-Wakefield, we're now at one computer for each 6.3 students," McMahan added.

Kim Holcomb, president of the John Archer School PTA, requested support from the board for an updated scope study for the proposed new John Archer School to be included in the 2014 fiscal year budget. The new study would take into account the lifting of state requirements that the new school be attached to an existing school, allowing instead for a new stand-alone building.

Replacement buildings for John Archer and Homestead-Wakefield, two of the county's older facilities, have been pushed back in priority the past two years, as the board faced pressure from Harford County Executive David Craig to make replacements for Havre de Grace High School and Youth's Benefit Elementary its top capital priorities going forward.

"Our current school is over 40 years old, and our school building was not designed to meet the needs for the population of special needs students the building is now serving," Holcomb said, noting that John Archer is the only public school in the county exclusively serving special needs students ages 3 to 21.

The final speaker during the public input session was Ryan Burbey, president of the Harford County Education Association, who asked the board to reach out to the county council to let them know about "challenges that this county faces as one of the lowest funded school systems per child in the state for many years."

"Our schools' and our county's fortunes are inexorably intertwined," said Burbey, whose union represents more than 3,000 teachers and guidance counselors. "There will not be success in our county in the future if we don't have successful schools."

"We need to build quality schools, and we need to build them not just with the bricks and mortar, but with the quality educators, professional development and facilities necessary to prepare our children for the 21st century," Burbey added.

County's share may increase

The proposed budget for fiscal year 2014 includes the unrestricted operating portion, proposed at $442,872,460. This is an increase of $15.1 million over the 2013 fiscal year budget. The increase includes a $6.3 million increase for wages; a $6.6 million increase for employee benefits and a $2.2 million increase in cost of business.

This is combined with the restricted budget of $26.6 million, which is about $1 million less than this year's restricted budget. This includes areas such as food services, as well as mandated federal programs for low-income students.

The total expense fund combines the restricted and unrestricted budgets for a total of $469.5 million. Of this, school officials expect the state to fund 43.6 percent, or $204.9 million. Harford County would fund 50.7 percent, or $237.9 million. Federal funding would amount to 3.9 percent, or $18.4 million.

The school system has 1.2 percent of revenue, or $5.6 million, set aside from previous fiscal years to support "ongoing operations and one-time expenditures." Other sources of funding, such as building use fees, athletic event gate receipts, fees for out of county students, interest income and other student fees account for the remaining 0.6 percent, or $2.7 million.

If the budget is approved by the school board as proposed, the 50 percent share of funding sought from the county would be a new high, although it would still be dependent on the county executive and county council agreeing to fund the amount requested.

Milken winner recognized

Before Monday's session was opened to public comments, the school board recognized Lauren Hunter, a teacher at William Paca/Old Post Elementary School in Abingdon, for being named a 2012 Milken Family Foundation Educator Award winner.

The foundation awards outstanding educators across the country a $25,000 cash prize. Hunter was presented her award last month.

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