The members of the Harford County Board of Education voted 7-1 Monday in favor of a nearly $442.8 million operating budget request for the 2014 fiscal year that is short by several million dollars in state funding.
Board President Francis F. "Rick" Grambo III cast the dissenting vote; board member Thomas Fitzpatrick was absent Monday.
Declining student enrollment has been cited as a factor in the $3.2 million decline in state aid, but Jim Jewell, Harford County Public Schools' assistant superintendent of business services, and his budget staff told board members the county's growing wealth also proved to be a major factor.
Jewell presented statistics that showed Howard County was the only one of 24 school districts in the state that had an increase in wealth in 2012; Harford had the lowest decline, of .01 percent.
Jewell said that when a county's wealth is stable, "the state assumes the county will pick up the difference" in school funds.
"So basically, they punish you for doing well," Grambo said.
The nearly $442.9 million operating budget Superintendent Robert Tomback has proposed for the 2014 fiscal year requests a $15.1 million increase and will rely on the county for most of the additional money. The additional funding includes some money for salary increases for teachers and the school system's other employees, more than 5,200 in all, with the raises subject to union negotiations which are taking place.
The final operating budget $442,794,760 approved Monday of is $77,700 less than the initial proposed operating budget, as the board members approved reducing the amount of funds available for purchasing new school buses.
The school system will purchase 38 new buses next year. Teri Kranefeld, manager of communications, said the number of new buses purchased each year varies, based on when buses were purchased. HCPS replaces its school buses every 12 years, according to Kranefeld.
The board also approved a $62.1 million capital budget request. The capital budget was initially $60.1 million, but board Member Robert L. Frisch put forth an amendment to provide $1.6 million for security measures at local schools.
Board Vice President Nancy Reynolds also put forth a $300,000 budget amendment for improvements to Joppatowne High School's stadium, improvements which would be in compliance with the Americans With Disabilities Act.
Board members approved both amendments.
During the meeting, board member James D. Thornton proposed creating a citizen advisory panel to advise the school board on the budget.
"At the end of the day, as taxpayers, they have a vested interest in how we get funded," Thornton said.
No action was taken on Thornton's suggestion.
Board members also expressed concerns about being able to meet commitments to employee benefits and preserving programs and staff with shrinking state aid.
Frisch warned there could be measures, as serious as closing underused school buildings.
"That's the unfortunate economic reality that we face," he said.
The school system's budget request will be sent to Harford County Executive David Craig, who will present the entire Harford budget to the Harford County Council for approval.