The public schools in Harford County face starting next school year around $30 million short of what school leaders believe they need but, based on comments from Harford County Council members, it appears unlikely they will get that money.
"We do understand that we're in a very stressful economic time, but we felt compelled to produce and to emphasize a needs-based budget," Superintendent Barbara Canavan told council members during their review of the school budget, Thursday morning.
"At the core, the problem for all of us is revenues, and that's where it all starts," Council President Billy Boniface said. "We only receive a certain amount of money."
Canavan spoke to the council, along with Board of Education President Nancy Reynolds and top HCPS administrative officials.
Although they did not give dire predictions of what could happen if the schools do not receive all of the funding they requested, they did talk about the consequences of years of what they consider to be underfunding, noting they have greater federal and state mandates, such as implementation of Common Core standards and electronic PARCC testing, and not enough money to do it all.
"We can always improve efficiencies, but ultimately I don't think we're going to improve efficiencies to get to the level where you guys want to be," Boniface told the school officials.
Canavan's $484.7 million proposed operating budget for the new fiscal year, which begins July 1, is funded primarily by county, state federal revenue sources, and is $31.8 million more than the budget approved for the current fiscal year.
The school system requested $243.3 million from the county, a $32 million increase; however, County Executive David Craig, who called that request unsustainable, approved about $2.4 million more, $1.9 million of which he said was to make up for reduced state funding of teacher salaries and the rest for increased teacher pension obligations. Last year, Canavan's predecessor as superintendent, sought at $24 million increase from the county and received about $22 million from Craig and the council.
"We are trying right now to hold on to what we have for next year, in light of what we have this year," Canavan explained. "We are trying diligently to keep class sizes where they are, not to reduce any of our teaching force and to maintain the quality that we have now."
School officials say they have cut back anything that could be considered extraneous over the years, such as course offerings that are not part of the core curriculum, many positions other than full-time teachers such as classroom inclusion helpers and delayed building maintenance projects and have held off on giving raises to teachers for four of the past five school years.
Canavan noted the employee retention rate remains high at about 93 percent.
"My fear is, that is going to be compounded and compromised by the lack of compensation," she said.
The system's 5,300 employees have had one cost of living raise, of 1 percent, in the past five budgets and aren't likely to get one in the next fiscal year under the amount of county funding approved by the county executive. HCPS, which has just over 37,900 students this year, has experienced annual incremental enrollment declines in the same period.
By law, the council could restore any of the $30 million Craig declined to fund, but in doing so it would have to either make cuts in the budgets of other county agencies, find additional sources of revenue – which would assuredly lead to tax or fee increase – or do a combination of both.
Canavan told the council members school officials are "appreciative of that; we feel that we need to try to make that work."
"We are not here today to ask any member of the County Council to take money away from another department or another facility," she continued. "If there is money in the budget that can be found and it can be given to the Board of Education for our children, we will be most appreciative of that."
Councilman Richard Slutzky, who serves as council liaison to the school system, tried to counter public perceptions that the schools are "top-heavy" with administrators.
Slutzky, who was a teacher and coach for decades and is running for council president, said he did not recall a time when that had been the case. But he also said he doesn't expect the council will be able to increase funding.
"We're not sure if and when it's going to get better, and if we could, we would, and we want you to know that," he said.
Councilwoman Mary Ann Lisanti urged county leaders, school officials and community members to work together to deal with the funding situation for future fiscal years – something she has done before.
"We appoint a group of people to seriously get down to business and tear each one of these pieces apart and develop a strategic plan for the next [county executive's] administration to start fixing these problems," she said.
Lisanti added: "I think we are at the point where we know what the problem is, but we don't have a collective plan to fix it."
The council will conclude its work sessions on the budget Tuesday. Public hearings are scheduled Thursday, May 1, at North Harford High School, 211 Pylesville Road in Pylesville, and Thursday, May 8, at Fallston High School, 2301 Carrs Mill Road in Fallston. Both sessions start at 6 p.m.