Veteran Harford County Public Schools educator Barbara Boksz has spent the past week looking through her options since learning she was one of 46 teachers and other school staffers to lose their jobs, the result of a slew of measures approved by the Board of Education to reconcile its budget for the 2014 fiscal year this month.
"The sad part of it is, it's the kids who are missing out," Boksz, a technology teacher at Magnolia Middle School in Joppatowne, said Tuesday.
The board had to close a $20.2 million gap between what it had requested from local, state and federal sources to fully fund operations, programs, personnel, capital projects and more, and what those sources were able to provide. Most of the shortfall resulted from the refusal of county elected officials – County Executive David Craig and the county council – to approve most of the nearly 10 percent increase in county funding the school system was seeking.
"The board was faced with some difficult, really difficult decisions to make," board member Robert Frisch said during a recent Edgewood Community Council meeting.
Those reconciliation measures consisted of eliminating 115 of more than 5,300 positions throughout the school district, including 46 occupied job slots, removing a $7.7 million allocation for teacher salary increases that had been agreed upon in negotiations with the teachers' union, consolidating bus stops to save on transportation costs and charging fees for students to participate in interscholastic athletics and extracurricular activities.
The remaining 69 positions would be eliminated through attrition, such as retirements and other resignations.
The budget reconciliation documents presented to the board on June 10 and made available online, indicated positions would be lost in the central office administration/operations and clerical office areas, the Business Services warehouse, as well as inclusion helpers, counselors, school clerical workers, elementary paraeducators and elementary, middle and high school teachers.
A detailed list of position cuts is not yet available from the school system, a spokesperson explaining again earlier this week that not all those slated to lose their jobs have been notified.
School budget staffers listed 128 positions for elimination, but said 12.5 could be saved by implementing a $50 per-season "Pay to Play" sports fee, $25 per-activity fee and increasing the field trip reimbursement.
The measures were projected to raise $731,000 in revenue in FY 2014, according to the reconciliation presentation. Board members voted 6-3 in favor of the budget reconciliation.
Frisch, along with board President Francis "Rick" Grambo and member Alysson Krchnavy, cast the dissenting votes.
The board also approved fee exemptions for children whose parents are teachers or in the active-duty military, and those who are approved for free and reduced-price meals at school.
Fees not popular
The fees, however, did not sit well with students and parents. Harford County Public Schools families don't pay to participate in sports or extracurricular activities, and most expenses are often covered by funds raised by school booster clubs or other groups.
Maureen Eller, of Forest Hill, whose daughter is a rising sophomore at Aberdeen High School, said recently she was "just kind of blindsided" by the fee announcement.
"We [parents] didn't even have a choice; we didn't even have a vote on whether this would happen," she said.
Her daughter plays soccer and basketball at Aberdeen, and Eller was concerned the fees could affect how many students participate in sports.
The fees could also affect participation in extracurricular activities.
"For me, personally, it's going to have a big impact because this year I was involved in a lot of activities," said Ross Jarrar, of Jarrettsville, a rising senior at North Harford High school
Ross, 17, said he participated in a number of extracurriculars during his junior year, including the school musical, student government and serving as a peer helper.
"I was really involved and it really motivated me to be a better student . . . I feel like the correlation with getting students involved will motivate them to be a better person and do better at school," he said.
Frisch told his Edgewood audience that school district leaders have avoided instituting fees "until this year, but it's simply something we cannot avoid any longer."
He noted about a third of Maryland's school districts charge student fees, and the $50 sports fee was still significantly lower than those charged to take part in sports offered by Harford's Parks and Recreation department.
"The reality is, the school system by law is not obligated to provide any of that," he explained. "It is what they call extra-curricular."
Bus stop consolidations
Harford County school buses make 45,000 trips each school day, and Frisch argued the school system is also not obligated to provide bus transportation, "but it's an expectation and it happens."
School officials plan to create "depot stops" for students who travel outside their communities for magnet programs elsewhere in the county, meaning parents must get their children to a designated bus stop.
Four elementary schools will be added to the school system's "fourth tier" schedule, meaning the school day lasts from 9:30 a.m. to 4 p.m.; Frisch noted parents used to an earlier start time might have to adjust their work schedules and find different child care options.
Buses will also not pick up other students "at your front door anymore," meaning children will have to walk to a designated stop, he said.
Teri Kranefeld, manager of communications for the school system, wrote in a recent e-mail that school officials are still working out details of how the new bus schedules and fees will be implemented.
Boksz, the Magnolia Middle technology teacher, said she was one of three middle school-level technology teachers to lose their jobs.
She was not expecting to be laid off, but found herself talking to a human resources representative on June 11, learning she would qualify for unemployment compensation as of July and would have benefits through August.
She is considering early retirement as one of her options, since she had 22 years with the school district. Boksz said she is also looking at teaching positions in neighboring counties she could "slip into very easily," or starting her own business.
"I've just been spinning my wheels, going in circles trying to figure out what to do, and I'm one of the lucky ones," she remarked. "I can't imagine what some of the younger teachers who can't retire are going to do."
Harford County school officials announced after the June 10 board final budget vote that teachers with certificates would be placed on a "recall list" for two years.
Boksz's husband is retired, and their children are grown. She also writes a blog, "Learning Byts Blog," about technology, teaching, writing and her other interests.
She wrote a post on June 11, the day she found out she would be "riff'd," lamenting the loss of technology teachers, especially those with tenure.
"You see, we are a district that has lots of BRAC potential, touted that our county would grow with the influx of high tech positions, and it is predicted that our students will have good chances of employment in that field in this district in the next 10 years," she wrote. "But if they don't have Computer teachers, how are they going to learn the skills needed for those positions?"
Boksz began teaching technology to elementary schoolchildren in Harford County in 1985, when personal computers were just becoming popular and the Internet was in its infancy.
She recalled having her Joppatowne Elementary School pupils send e-mails to their counterparts at Magnolia Elementary in 1988, and teaching students to do online research during the early 1990s.
"It was just amazing to me that my kids could access any library in the world from this computer," she said.
Boksz spent her first 15 years in Harford County teaching at Joppatowne and at Dublin Elementary. She then began working with faculty at UMBC, teaching them to incorporate technology into their classes, and later worked with colleges and taught elementary school in Colorado.
The Baltimore native, who moved to Harford in the late 1970s, returned to Harford County Public Schools six years ago, in part to care for her mother.
She said her favorite part of teaching is "just seeing the light in the kids' eyes when they catch on to something."
Boksz said she might volunteer in schools or substitute teach, since the profession also gave her "the joy of sharing what you know."
The Harford County Education Association spent months in 2011 and 2012 battling the school system in court and before the Maryland Public School Labor Relations Board in order to obtain cost-of-living salary increases and salary steps.
There was $7.7 million allocated in the school system's original proposed FY14 budget that would have funded an additional 1 percent raise next school year for teachers and most other school employees, as well as annual step raises teachers receive as they complete additional years of service and gain more experience in the classroom, as well as meeting certain education targets.
Ryan Burbey, president of the Harford County Education Association, the local teachers' union, said he would be willing to return to the legal battle since the school board declined to fund the steps.
"That's just completely unacceptable," Burbey said Monday. "Some form of compensation whether it's monetary or some form of non-monetary compensation, has to happen."
He said that as of June 10 and going through next school year, Harford County teachers are "working to rule," meaning they will only complete duties "explicitly defined" in their contract.
"They won't be staying after and working after their duty day, except as required," he said.
Burbey said Harford County teachers have not had step increases in four out of the past five years – the only one coming at the start of the just completed school year, and many are looking for work in counties which do have step raises funded – or are even seeking work "outside of teaching."
"For teachers early on in their career that's essential because they're expected to get a master's in 10 years," he said of the annual step salary increases.
No teachers were laid off in Harford's neighbor across the Susquehanna River, Cecil County, historically considered less affluent than Harford.
Lori Hrinko, president of the Cecil County Classroom Teachers Association, said some positions will be lost through attrition, but "nobody will be losing their jobs."
Cecil County teachers also agreed to a three-year contract and a cost of living adjustment capped at 2 percent, depending on the national Consumer Price Index this fall.
Though Craig, the county executive – who recently announced his candidacy for governor, declined to provide all of the local funds requested by school officials for next year, he set aside about $1.5 million more in additional county money for the school system, about $19 million less than what school officials had asked for.
"Many of our neighbors are facing 20 percent cuts to their salaries and even layoffs as a result of federal sequestration," Craig wrote in a letter to local media in late May. "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."
Members of the county council sealed Craig's actions on the school budget, when they approved final adoption of the county's 2014 budget at their legislative session on June 4.
With Burbey, many teachers and some parents in the audience, the council members cited reasons for their actions, such as the economic downturn and a steady decline in school system enrollment, some pointing out that to give more money to the schools would require either reducing other government services or raising taxes, or both.
"The point is that it's a lot of money, and there's no way the county council can come up with $19 million to restore what the county executive couldn't find," Councilman Guthrie said that night. "We couldn't find it either."
The school system's reaction – the position cuts, layoffs, new fees – came six nights later.