Members of the Harford County Board of Education voted, 7-2, Monday night to approve a $426.9 million unrestricted operating budget for the 2015 fiscal year that includes no position cuts, but it also contains no funds for teacher salary steps, and it reinstates the controversial $50 "pay-to-play" fee to participate in interscholastic sports.
Board members Robert Frisch and James Thornton cast the dissenting votes. They and their fellow board members cast their votes in a meeting room in the A.A. Roberty Building in Bel Air that was nearly filled to capacity.
Frisch called the budget, which is $27.2 million less than what Superintendent Barbara Canavan determined would be needed to run the school system in the coming fiscal year, "a very raw deal."
"It's very difficult, but we need to keep the system running, even though it presents us with very difficult choices," he explained.
The budget will cover Harford County Public Schools operations for the 2014-15 fiscal year, which begins July 1.
Board members also voted, 8-1, in favor of a $33.6 million capital budget, a $29.4 million restricted budget and a $15.7 million budget for food services for FY2015. Board Vice President Francis "Rick" Grambo cast the dissenting vote.
Thornton said he would not support the operating budget as presented because he thought "a budget should reflect the values that an organization embraces."
"For me [it is] people, the people who every day work in our classrooms, provide all the support services that we provide, haven't, in this budget, been adequately been taken care of," he said.
School officials included $13.7 million for additional staff wages in their budget request, but had to remove the money since the state and county did not fully fund their parts of the school system's revenue requests.
Thornton suggested that school officials explore "zero-based budgeting" when putting together Harford County Public School's budget for the 2016 fiscal year. He noted Howard County school officials have been using the technique, which involves developing a budget based on the needs for the upcoming fiscal year, for two years.
The funding starts at zero, and officials must justify each expense, according to the Howard County Public School System Website.
"I think it may offer us an opportunity to determine whether or not our current organizational structure, and how we run our school district, is indeed the most efficient," Thornton explained.
He stressed that his suggestion has "no reflection on my like and respect for the leadership of the administration."
Thornton and Frisch's fellow board members shared their concerns, despite their affirmative votes.
"The system has been harmed; it's been bleeding for a while, and despite the superintendent's best efforts, it's going to continue to be damaged," board member Cassandra Beverley said.
The board's decision caused one of the many teachers who came to the meeting to show support for funding for the salary steps to run out of the meeting room in tears. Her sobs punctuated the resigned hush that descended over the room.
Salary steps are annual salary increases that are written into each teacher's contract meant to promote faculty longevity and ease the cost of obtaining required advanced degrees, and Harford County teachers have only received one step in the past five years.
That teacher, Katie Moore, of Bel Air, a Magnolia Middle School special education teacher in her sixth year of teaching, sat outside the meeting room a short time later with her husband, Mike, who is in his 10th year and teaches at Fallston Middle School.
"When you put your heart and soul into serving your community, it's disheartening to not feel appreciated," she said. "It just leaves you feeling broken."
The couple moved to Harford from Anne Arundel County in 2008, and they noted their combined income is less this year than when they arrived in Harford County six years ago – they have both obtained their master's degrees since then.
Mike Moore was among the teachers, support staff, union leaders and parents who spoke during public comment portion of Monday's meeting and urged the school board to find the money to fund salary steps so teachers can have a salary that is competitive with surrounding counties.
"I love my job, and I love going to work, but unfortunately, without getting any love back from the county, I don't see any reason to stay," Moore said during the public comment period.
He added after the meeting: "I love my students as well, that's what makes it worth doing; I feel like I'm being forced to find something else."
The operating budget before the school board Monday is about half a million dollars less than the $427.4 million budget approved for the 2014 fiscal year.
Revenue from Harford County, which makes up more than half, or 52.3 percent of the FY2015 budget, stands at $223.6 million. That figure is $2.3 million more than the school system received from the county last year, but still $29.6 million less than what school officials sought.
The total operating budget, which is also funded with revenue from state, federal and "other" sources, plus a $5.5 million transfer from the school system's fund balance, is $27.2 million less than what the school system requested to cover an employee wage increase package, plus increased utility and employee benefit costs.
Board members reviewed the operating budget during a meeting last Wednesday that lasted more than three hours, and they ultimately decided to postpone taking a vote to Monday, to give members of the public extra time to weigh in on it.
Board members praised the public for their comments Monday.
In her closing remarks, Canavan promised, "as the primary steward of the system," that she would do everything possible to ensure that school faculty and staff, parents and guardians, and the students themselves benefit from "all the hard work that all the people at this [school board] dais do and all the hard work that our leadership does."