Harford superintendent warns of cuts if budget requests not funded

Harford County's interim school superintendent introduced a recommended budget for next school year Monday that calls for a $33 million increase in county funding, and she stressed that "anything less than the requested amount will result in cuts."

"Please understand that I am going to be very candid and forthright regarding this request," Interim Superintendent Barbara Canavan told members of the Board of Education during their meeting in Bel Air Monday.

"Without full funding support of this budget our current offerings and programs will be compromised," she explained.

Canavan said if the budget request is not fully funded, "with the amount of input we have received, a complete list of suggested programs, services and staff that will need to be considered for elimination will be developed."

That list would be presented to the school board and the public "if we arrive at a point where it is clear that we will again be facing a budgetary shortfall."

The $484.7 million operating budget, which was given to the Board of Education Monday night, is 7 percent higher than this year's $452.8 million budget, but Canavan is asking the county to increase its outlay for schools by more than 15 percent.

The request for $254.4 million from the county comes just a year after the previous superintendent, Robert Tomback, sought more than $240 million from the county that the county executive and county council later pared down to $218.8 million.

After Tomback declined to seek another contract this year, the school board put Canavan in charge on an interim basis for one year while it hires a permanent replacement.

Canavan noted the input that has been provided by members of the community and school system employees during the early stages of developing next year's budget.

School officials provided an online budget tool that allows users to design a line-by-line budget for FY15; Canavan said 31 proposed budgets have been submitted so far, and each has been evaluated by Canavan and central office administrators and posted on the school system website.

"We heard very clearly from the public, and from our employees, that our focus must be on the academic needs of our students and restoring our employees to a competitive wage package within the job market," she explained.

Canavan said the school system's top four priorities include preserving the "integrity of our instructional programs," preserving jobs, restoring salaries to remain competitive with neighboring school systems and preserving employee benefits.

According to a briefing document given to the board, the recommended budget for the 2014-15 school year includes increases of $13.7 million for wages, $10.1 million for employee benefits and $8.9 million for such ongoing costs as utilities and maintenance of plant and equipment.

All of that additional money is being sought from the county. Although state aid is projected to increase by $2.9 million to $196 million, "other" revenue whose source isn't specified is expected to decline $1 million.

The document also states the school system needs to raise compensation for its 5,400 employees to maintain a competitive salary structure with other counties and "to avoid falling further behind."

"It may seem like a lot, but we have been very flat for multiple years," Jim Jewell, assistant superintendent for business services, told school board members Monday.

Teachers and other employees have received a single 1 percent cost of living raise in the last five years, in part because county officials have declined to fund all the money school officials have requested.

The disconnect between school officials and county elected officials over school funding has played out in several contentious ways over the past two years, the most recent occurring last spring and summer when the school board cut positions, imposed fees to play sports and participate in other activities and consolidated or reduced some bus services. All the moves were controversial with the public.

According to the budget briefing document, from 2010-11 through 2013-14, "Harford County Public Schools operating costs increased by $55.8 million and decreased $9.1 million, resulting in a budget shortfall of $64 million."

As of Sept. 30, the Harford school system had 37,900 students, about 500 fewer than four years ago.

Canavan noted the school system's budget has been reduced by $38 million over the past five years through cost-saving measures, and 240 positions have been eliminated since the 2010 fiscal year.

School board members congratulated Canavan and her staff for working closely with the community while developing the FY15 budget.

Board member Cassandra Beverley asked about finding more funding for school security, in light of recent shootings at schools in other states, and Student Representative Ben Barsam asked about developing a budget item for restoring bus service to where it was before routes were consolidated.

"It's important that the public understand its role in this discussion to the greatest extent possible," board member Thomas Fitzpatrick said. "Obviously we may be faced with some difficult choices and we hope that the political leadership of the county [understands] that those choices are shared and that they impact everyone in this county."

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