School Board meeting

Since more than 200 parents and students pack a recent school board meeting to vent about new fees and bus route consolidations meant to save money, the school board, county executive and county council have been playing the blame game. (DAVID ANDERSON | AEGIS STAFF, Homestead Publishing / July 29, 2013)

Charges and counter-charges have been flying over the last 10 days after Harford County Public Schools leaders announced cutbacks to bus service and plans to begin collecting fees to participate in sports and other extracurricular activities.

Harford County Executive David Craig says he wants those actions rescinded, saying there are more acceptable alternatives.

At the center of the fight is the school system's $444 million budget for the 2013-14 school year that begins on Aug. 26. The budget is about $20 million less than what the Harford County Board of Education requested; the county executive and county council declined to fund the full request.

For the past four months, school leaders, members of the Harford County Council and the county executive have traded public barbs.

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The county's action triggered unpopular responses from school officials, including elimination of raises planned for 5,300 school employees, the bus service cutbacks announced two weeks ago and the new sports and activity fees.

After more than 200 parents, students, elected officials, teachers and other school employees and their families packed the school board's last meeting on July 29, fingers began to point. More than 40 people spoke during the meeting, which ran about three-and-a-half hours because so many people offered comments.

Find money 'elsewhere'

On Tuesday, Craig again defended the county's action on the school budget, while also urging school officials to reconsider their own actions. He also reiterated that the school system received more money from the county for the coming year than it received from the county in the previous year.

"I do not question the Board members' dedication to education in any way," Craig wrote in a lengthy letter to the editor of The Aegis. "I do, however, question their judgment in the case. Were the changes in transportation practices and introduction of sports and activity fees enacted because they would cause the least impact to students and parents, or is it the opposite?"

"Considering the amount of money that these changes save - roughly $1.5 million out of a total budget of well over $400 million - I believe that these funds could have been easily found elsewhere in the school system's budget," he wrote.

Though Craig noted he has no authority to tell the school system how to spend its funds or handle operational and personnel decisions, he did offer his personal assistance and that of his budget staff "in finding areas where these funds can be found."

With teachers still seeking raises, school officials having to absorb millions in pension costs and the ever-increasing cost of "doing business," the issues that prompted the Harford County Board of Education to seek a major increase in local funds this year will most likely be present next year, one outspoken school board member says.

"I would not be surprised to see that any of those issues change," board member Robert Frisch said last week.

"There's just the general increased cost of doing business that really brought us to a point that, even without the negotiated [teacher] pay raise in the budget, we really couldn't continue as we were with the funding that we had," Frisch said.

Craig's office, which puts the county budget together each year and then submits it to the county council for final approval, also defended its school funding in a handout provided to visitors at the county's booth during the recent Farm Fair.

"Since Fiscal Year 2006, Harford County Government's contribution to Harford County Public Schools has increased by 26 percent and by 35 percent per student," administration officials wrote.

The handout was one of more than 50 "pieces of literature" available to fair goers who visited the county's tent "all of which addressed various programs and topics that we anticipated that residents would be interested in," Sherrie Johnson, Harford County's public information officer, wrote in an e-mail Thursday. Johnson said it cost the county $75.95 to print 1,000 of the handouts.

"The county executive disagrees with the recent actions of the board and feels that they were unnecessary," she wrote. "He will address the issue in a more formal setting in the coming weeks."

Tax increase warning

The school system's funding request for the 2013-2014 school year, which was introduced to the school board in late 2012, included a request of more than $241 million in county funds, $21 million more than what was budgeted for fiscal 2013, according to budget documents posted on the school system's website.