Harford school board votes to ditch pay-to-play next year

Members of the Harford County Board of Education voted 7-3 Monday to adopt a $454.1 million proposed operating budget for the 2014-15 school year that also calls for an end to the controversial "pay-to-play" that extracurricular activity and interscholastic sports fees.

The school board approved the $50 per-sport and $25 per-activity fee last June 2013, one of several steps to raise money and cut expenses after county officials refused to approve a significant funding increase school officials had sought.

"I don't believe for one minute that anyone on this school board would have supported activity fees if we had other options," board member Thomas Fitzpatrick said during Monday's board meeting in Bel Air.

Board member Alysson Krchnavy put forth the amendment to remove the fees "from the superintendent's proposed budget," which would take effect school next year, by removing $309,500 in revenue projected from the fee.

The amendment passed in a close 6-4 vote following a lengthy debate among the board members.

James Thornton, Joseph Hau, Arthur Kaff, Krchnavy, president Nancy Reynolds and student representative Ben Barsam voted for the amendment; Fitzpatrick, Cassandra Beverley, Robert Frisch and vice president Francis "Rick" Grambo voted against.

In approving Interim Superintendent Barbara Canavan's proposed budget, the board first cut $3.3 million in expenses and $2.2 million in project revenue to balance the budget at $454.1 million, down from $457.4 million as proposed by Canavan.

The final budget action, which passed 7-3, means the school system will still be asking the county for healthy increase of almost $31 million.

Fitzpatrick, Thornton, Krchnavy, Beverley, Kaff, Reynolds and Barsam voted for the overall budget; Hau, Grambo and Frisch voted against.

Because revenue is dependent on the state and county, Krchnavy cautioned that the extra-curricular fees could be reinstated if needed when the board votes to adopt the final version of its budget in June, once the county executive and county council have dealt with the $250 million-plus request for county funding.

"I'd like to thank my colleagues for their spirited discussion on this particular amendment, and I realize that, as we get the numbers back from the county executive, that this very well may come back to a conversation and may need to be restored, but for now I appreciate the consideration," she said.

Parents and students have railed against the activity and athletic fees, from which students whose parents are Harford County teachers or in the active-duty military, or qualify for the Free and Reduced Meals, or FARMs, program, have been exempt.

FARMs connection

Monday's debate among board members was driven largely by the FARMs program, which is serving more HCPS students, and whose growth may have a correlation to the new pay-to-play fees.

Jim Jewell, assistant superintendent for business services, stressed that the number of students getting breakfast and lunch at school through FARMs increased by 675 students from the previous school year to the current school year.

He told the board 10,970 are eligible for FARMs in the 2013-14 school year. Total HCPS enrollment is just shy of 38,000 students.

Jewell also noted that there is a financial benefit to the school system by having more children enrolled in FARMs.

"Each student that's on free and reduced meals generates in excess of $3,000 per student in compensatory aid that funds the unrestricted budget," he explained.

"Not only is there a fiscal attachment, but the more important part is, that because there was an opportunity for students to participate in an activity and or sports for free, these kids realized that opportunity," Canavan said.

Frisch said prompting more students to enroll in FARMs has been an "unintended benefit" of the fees.

He said a student cannot concentrate on his or her lessons "when all you're thinking about is your stomach growling."

Kaff said he "only voted for the fee very reluctantly last year," and remains concerned about its impact on middle-income families in the county.

"I still have a lot of reservations about the harsh effects on families, so I'm concerned that it discourages participation in student activities and athletics," he said.

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