Harford County Public Schools' proposed operating budget for fiscal year 2014 is seeking a 3.5 percent overall spending increase from the current fiscal year, which amounts to $15.1 million more, and includes an unspecified wage increase for teachers and other employees.

The proposed budget also asks for a substantial increase in funding from Harford County.

The unrestricted operating budget, proposed at $442,872,460, was introduced to the Board of Education Monday night and includes an increase of $6.3 million for wages, $6.6 million for employee benefits and a $2.2 million increase in cost of business, for a total increase of $15.1 million.

Also proposed is a restricted budget of $26.6 million, about $1 million less than the current restricted budget, which covers such areas as food services and some mandated federal programs for low income students.

Superintendent Robert Tomback noted that the proposed budget would include a "wage package increase" for HCPS employees, though he did not specify how much, as negotiations with unions representing teachers and other employees are still in progress

"We know we've fallen behind from our neighboring counties in Baltimore and Cecil [counties]," Tomback said.

He noted that school expenses are rising again, including a 5 percent cost increase for health and dental insurance and the impact of the teacher pension shift to the county from the State of Maryland.

Public input sessions on the budget will be held after the new year, Tomback continued. The sessions are scheduled for Jan. 2, Jan. 14 and Jan. 16, all beginning at 6 p.m. in the board's meeting room at the A.A. Roberty Building at 102 S. Hickory Ave. in Bel Air.

County share could rise 8 percent

In February, the board will present the budget to the county executive and county council, who have control over how much county funding will be provided.

That could prove to be a sticking point because Tomback is proposing that the county's share of the total school operating budget would increase $18 million, or 8.2 percent, to where the county would be providing about 50.4 cents of every dollar the school system spends on operations, up from 48.4 cents in the current budget.

Jim Jewell, assistant superintendent of business services, told the board that state funding will decrease because of yet another decrease in enrollment in the county. The number of students receiving free or reduced meals, however, will increase.

According to the latest enrollment estimate for the current school year, which was also released Monday, Harford's schools have 37, 868 students, which 356 fewer than were enrolled in November 2011.

According to school documents, operating costs for HCPS have increased by $48.6 million, with revenue decreasing by $6 million from fiscal year 2010 through 2013. To resolve shortfalls, the system reduced positions, received salary savings from employee turnover, made other cost reductions and used some $6.7 million in fund balances.

HCPS employees did not receive an increase in salary during three of the four years in this time period, Tomback noted. In the current fiscal year, they received a 1 percent cost of living increase and incremental step raises, their first cost of living adjustment since mid-2008. To fund the increase, however, 66 positions were eliminated between the end of the last school year in June and the beginning of the current one.

With a total projected decrease in state and federal revenue of almost $3 million, the proposed 2014 budget would be balanced with a $5.6 fund balance, essentially a carried over surplus from prior years, plus the additional $18 million requested from the county.

The latter request includes $1.5 million to cover teacher pension costs transferred from the state.

It's the superintendent's intent with the proposed budget to avoid falling further behind in step increases and cost of living adjustments for HCPS employees.

The school board, however, will have to negotiate with all five bargaining units to establish salary, wages and other working conditions.

Capital program

Detailed in school documents, there are changes to the school system's capital improvement program, the biggest being a lack of a request for state money toward replacing Youth's Benefit Elementary School and Havre de Grace High School.

The board voted in September on the CIP, which had construction for the two schools as top priorities and included a request of $26,844,052 on the state level.

Teri Kranefeld, manager of communications for HCPS, explained Thursday that the time lag in designing both projects is the reason the school system won't be seeking state funds for either in the 2014 fiscal year.

"Because the design documents and other required documents that need to be submitted and approved by the state prior to receipt of construction funding will not be completed until May/June 2014 we are not eligible for construction funds at this time," Kranefeld explained an e-mail. "The decision to pull the funding request for the Youth's Benefit project will not affect the HCPS project timeline because it will take us a year to prepare the final bid documents, and it wouldn't be before July 2014 that we would be in a position to sign a contract and commit construction funds to the project."

A local request is included for both projects in 2014 — $1 million for Youth's Benefit and $3.7 million for Havre de Grace High

The top two priorities listed in 2014 are a new HVAC system for Magnolia Middle School and North Harford Elementary School.

A state request for $2,649,000 and local request for $2,251,000 has been proposed for Magnolia, and a state request of $1,098,390 and a local request for $1,178,610 for North Harford.

Without further comment on the budget from the board Monday, President Rick Grambo noted that information on the budget can be found at hcps.org/budget.