Public interest in Harford school budget continues to be lackluster

Harford County residents had two more opportunities Monday to give their input to Harford County school officials as they develop the budget for the 2014-15 school year but, once again, the turnouts were sparse.

Interim Superintendent Barbara Canavan has put forth a $484.7 million operating budget proposal for next year, which is $31.8 million or 7 percent more than the current FY2014 budget.

The first of Monday's sessions was held in the afternoon at the Center for Educational Opportunity in Aberdeen. Two people spoke, while at least 12 members of the senior staff of Harford County Public Schools were present, including Canavan and Chief of Administration Joe Licata.

Three board members presided over the meeting: President Nancy Reynolds and members Arthur Kaff and James Thornton.

"Although the turnout was low, we got some constructive comments once again, and these are very important as we continue our budget deliberations," Kaff said after the meeting.

Attendance was better at an evening board budget work session held Monday night at the A.A. Roberty Building, the school system's headquarters, in Bel Air.

At least 50 people were in the audience, and 11 people spoke about the budget. As the work session was being held prior to the board's regular business meeting, all 10 members of the school board were present.

Most of Monday night's speakers were teachers or teacher advocates, who urged board members to fully fund salary steps – pay increases that take effect as teachers gain years of experience and earn advanced degrees – that are part of the school system's contractual obligation to the teachers.

Two teachers encouraged the board to find a way to fund salary steps even if County Executive David Craig does not fully fund the local portion of the operating budget.

"You will see the end of excellence in education in this county if not," Jean Nussle, an English teacher at Joppatowne High School, warned board members. "We're already on a downward trend."

Harford County teachers have not received step raises in four of the past five budgets. Salary increases planned in the current school year weren't funded after county officials did not approve all the money school officials requested.

"Since the single factor which impacts student learning the most outside the home is not a building, or an athletic field, or lights that shut on and off automatically, but people who interact with, motivate and guide the students in their charge, one would think that is where you would make an investment," Nussle said.

Aberdeen session

The session in Aberdeen was the second public input meeting on the budget the board has hosted this year. Five citizens attended the first in Havre de Grace last Wednesday evening, three of whom spoke.

Rachel Burbey, of Aberdeen, and John Mallamo, of Bel Air, were Monday afternoon's speakers, according to the sign-up sheet.

Burbey shared her concerns regarding the depot bus stops established for magnet school students, part of the school system's consolidation of school bus routes to save money during the current fiscal year, said board member James Thornton who attended the session. Mallamo spoke about teacher compensation, Thornton said.

"I think all we can do is extend the offer to the community ... Hopefully tonight we'll see a larger crowd as we continue with this process," Thornton said of the turnout at the Aberdeen meeting.

School officials left about an hour after the input session began; Aberdeen resident Marla Posey-Moss arrived about 10 minutes later, having rushed over from her job with the Baltimore County school system.

"I was afraid that would happen, but I couldn't get here any faster," she said.

Posey-Moss, who is also running for state delegate, said she would have encouraged the board members to consider revenue-generating measures such as holding "enrichment" classes during the summer and charging parents a fee for their children to participate, as well as having Harford County businesses sponsor pages in the annual school calendar.

"You just have to look at more effective ways to raise revenue," she said. "We can't raise taxes... My ultimate goal is, I don't want to see teachers jobs cut and I don't want to see bigger class sizes."

Big county increase sought

In her budget, Canavan has requested $254.3 million in county funds for next year, $33 million more than the current year.

She has also sought $206 million from the state and $17.5 million from the federal government; $3.5 million of the budget request will be covered by a transfer from the fund balance and $3.3 million from "other" revenue sources.

Craig announced in December he expected overall county revenues will increase by $7.6 million during FY2015, however.

"The reality is that this budget is a pipe dream," George Curry, a teacher at North Harford Middle School and a parent of a first grader and fifth grader in Harford County Public Schools, said at Monday night's session.

"This means, once again, that the employees of Harford County Public Schools, your employees, will bear the brunt of the financial shortcomings as we have for the past half-decade, but it is reaching the breaking point," Curry told school board members. "The lifeblood of our public schools, the instructional staff, your employees, cannot take it any more."

County residents will have two more opportunities to weigh in on the budget Wednesday.

The next session is from noon to 2 p.m. and will be held at Mountain Christian Church, 1824 Mountain Road in Joppa. The second will be from 6 to 8 p.m. and will be held at the Roberty Building, 102 S. Hickory Ave., in Bel Air.

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