Harford school budget battle continues to rage

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Harford County Executive David Craig says he wants those actions rescinded, saying there are more acceptable alternatives.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

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.

Craig ended up placing $221.3 million in the school system's budget, an increase of $1.5 million from the previous year, and the county council concurred.

In Craig's letter this week, fully funding the school system's request would have amounted to "roughly $560 more per pupil" and "would have required a significant increase in taxes."

In June, board members approved a number of drastic changes to close the nearly $20 million hole in their budget, including canceling a $7.7 million package of teacher wage increases, which were part of a contract between the school system and the teacher's union, cutting 115 positions system-wide, implementing a $50 "pay to play" per-sport fee to participate in interscholastic sports, a $25 per-activity fee to participate in extra curricular activities and consolidation of a number of school bus routes, plus creating "depot stops" for students involved in magnet programs who have previously been transported from their homes to their magnet schools. Teachers received a salary bump last year, their first since 2008.

"This is all a result of a history, a pervasive and serial history, of under funding your schools," Ryan Burbey, president of the Harford County Education Association, said during the July 29 board meeting.

School officials project the sports fee will raise $264,500 with a projected 5,290 students participating, and the activity fee will raise $285,500 with a projected 11,420 participating, Teri Kranefeld, manager of communications for the school system, wrote in an e-mail this week.

The bus changes, which include depot stops for magnet schools and later starting and ending times for four elementary schools, are expected to save $890,000.

Frisch said it was "a good question" where the money would come from if the school system makes a similar request next year, with the fees and bus route changes raising less than $2 million.

Council's position

In addition to Craig, much blame has been cast at the members of the county council, which does not put the county budget together, but does have authority to add to the executive's school system budget allocation.

"The council has no funding appropriation authority," Councilman Richard Slutzky said Thursday. "That is the responsibility under state law of the county executive."

Slutzky, who serves as the council's liaison to the board of education and was a teacher and coach at Aberdeen High School for more than 30 years, said money would have to come from other county departments to fully fund the school system's request,

He said the county's own fund balance could not be tapped because funds are needed for countywide emergencies, and a balance of at least 5 to 6 percent has to be maintained to keep the county's borrowing costs from increasing.

"I feel certain that the school administration and the board of education is doing the very best they can to try to provide ongoing services and [meet] demands that they have to provide, in a 21st-century educational climate," he said.

Slutzky said Harford County is working to maintain a balanced budget in an economic climate that has been difficult for years, and the county had fully funded the school system's request when economic times were better.

"The bottom line is, my colleagues would love to be able to help every school employee, every deputy sheriff, every county employee, but we are in a very difficult economy," he said.

Frisch said even more changes could be coming to the bus system, and increased class sizes are also a potential.

"Personally that's not something that I think is in the best interest of the students," he said. "That's something that I would particularly like to avoid, but I don't know if there would be many other options for us, but we'll have to wait and see how that plays out."

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