Teachers and others concerned about county funding of the 2014 school budget were expected to stage another protest at Tuesday night's Harford County Council meeting in Bel Air.
With time running out in the budget review process, the 1 percent pay increase the teachers union negotiated earlier this year with the Harford County Board of Education appears to be in jeopardy after Harford County Executive David Craig declined to fund the entire increase of $21.2 million requested by the school board from the county for next year's budget.
The council could have enacted the new budget as early as Tuesday's session, or it could postpone final action until next month when it is scheduled to meet June 3 and June 10, before the legal deadline to enact the budget falls on June 16. Under an amendment to the county charter approved by county voters last November, the deadline for the council to act on the budget was moved from June 1 to 15 days prior to the start of the fiscal year on July 1.
Under state law, the council could vote to restore part or all of the $19.7 million increase in the school budget that Craig declined to fund. The school system requested $241 million from the county next fiscal year, a 9.6 percent funding increase. Craig, however, has proposed giving the system $221.3 million, an increase of $1.5 million, or about 0.6 of a percent.
About $7.7 million of the additional funding requested by the school system would be used to fund cost of living raises of 1 percent, plus annual step raises that typically average 3 percent for a majority of the school system's 5,300 employees.
Were the council to attempt to restore all or part of that money, it would be faced with the prospect of making reductions elsewhere in the county budget, something that was done four years ago, with somewhat dubious results, as Craig reacted with cuts in popular programs and layoffs.
The council would also have to negotiate the political minefield of making budget cuts to pay one segment of the public workforce, while denying increases to county employees, including those who work in law enforcement. Craig, citing economic conditions and the cost of fulfilling state mandates, said he could not propose pay increases for county employees next fiscal year, and the council has no power to make him spend money on them unless he first agrees to it.
'Not practical or responsible'
Last week, Craig sent a letter to local media outlets defending his position on the school system's budget request in the wake of criticism he received from teachers, parents and other school employees at two public hearings on the budget the county council held the previous week.
"Many of our neighbors are facing 20 percent cuts to their salaries and even layoffs as a result of federal sequestration," Craig wrote. "The uncertainty and strain that this places on the household budgets of so many of Harford's citizens troubles me, and coupled with a national economy that continues to lag, I felt that implementing tax increases to fund growth in the county budget was not a practical or responsible option at this time."
"County employees have had to endure a state of frozen salaries just as school system employees have," the county executive continued. "In county government, we have eliminated hundreds of positions and in many cases have transferred greater responsibility to current workers."
"The surprise is that during my tenure as county executive, [Harford County Public Schools] has increased its staff by over 650 positions even though school enrollment has declined by over 2,300 students," added Craig, who took office in mid-2005, just after the start of the 2005-06 county fiscal year.
In the letter, Craig also noted that even if he put more money into the county share of the school budget next year, there is no guarantee it will be spent on teacher raises.
"The fact is that I have no control over how the Board of Education uses the money allocated to them," he wrote. "I could put $5 million extra in the county's allocation and say it is for a pay raise and it could instead be used for new positions, health care or operations. I do not get to vote on or approve their budget."
Last summer, when the school system reached an agreement with its unions to give employees a 1 percent cost of living adjustment and step raises, the superintendent cut 70 positions, drawing an angry response from teacher union leaders.
Craig's letter drew a swift and lengthy rebuke from Ryan Burbey, the president of the Harford County Education Association, or HCEA, the union that represents 3,200 teachers, guidance counselors and other instructional staff.
In a nearly four and a half page letter, Burbey attacked Craig's statements about the county's revenue position point-by-point, using footnoted references to budget data, and also took issue with the county executive's claim about the growth in the number of school system employees.
In reference to latter, Burbey wrote: "This allegation also seems to be false. In 2005, HCPS employed 4,997, 2,589 of whom were teachers. The HCPS FY14 operating budget proposes a total staff of 5,372 with 2,847 teaching positions. That is only an increase of 375 positions."
Burbey went on to write that if Craig was basing his 650 estimate from 2004-05, the budget that passed the year before Craig replaced Jim Harkins as county executive in mid-term, there have been at least two new schools opened in the period, Patterson Mill High and Middle School in 2008 and Red Pump Elementary in 2011, which he said together would account for 185 positions, "almost half of the 375 positions." (Craig has maintained in the past, however, that he did not provide funding to add new positions to staff Red Pump, telling school officials they should shift teachers from other schools where enrollments were being reduced to fill Red Pump.)
Burbey said positions were added to fund three new magnet programs at the high school level and to hire more custodial personnel at new high school buildings, which he said are "substantially larger replacement buildings."
"Your letter also suggests a false choice of either properly funding education and increasing taxes or leaving tax rates consistent and maintaining your short-sighted trend of underfunding education," Burbey wrote. "This is just categorically inaccurate."
"More than anything else, budgets reflect the priorities of our leaders," the union leader continued. "It is clear that education is not your priority."
The claims and counterclaims by Craig and Burbey notwithstanding, a review of school budgets since the 2005-06 school year shows neither one is correct about the increase in the school system's number of employees.
According to the 2005-06 school budget – adopted two months before Craig took office – the school system had 5,031 full-time equivalent employees. According to the final budget for 2013 (including 73 jobs reduced last July) - the school system had 5,374 full-time employees, an increase of 343 positions, or 6.8 percent. Pending final county action, the school system's budget for next school year has two fewer positions.
The enrollment numbers cited in Craig's letter are somewhat more accurate. According to school system annual enrollment reports, in September 2005 – two months after Craig became a county executive – the school system had 40,212 students. This past November, the school system reported having 37,868 students enrolled as of Sept. 30, 2012.
Enrollment has declined by 2,344 students, or 5.8 percent, since 2005.
The complete texts of the Craig and Burbey letters can be read online at http://www.exploreharford.com.