Members of the community must determine what they want their school system to be in the coming years, and to let local leaders know how education funds should be spent according to those priorities, Harford County Public Schools officials stressed again and again Monday.
"It really does boil down to what the community wants ... It's only when you are heard that we truly understand what it is that you want," school board member Robert Frisch said.
Frisch, his fellow board members, along with Interim Superintendent Barbara Canavan and other top officials in Harford County Public Schools' central office, hosted a two-hour roundtable with community leaders at Edgewood High School Monday evening.
Twelve leaders of various community and business groups, including the Abingdon, Edgewood and Jarrettsville/Norrisville community councils, the Harford County NAACP and the Aberdeen Chamber of Commerce, attended.
Ten members of the public, who were not allowed to comment, sat and listened to the proceedings.
Board President Nancy Reynolds said the local school system could go through a number of changes in the next five years.
"As a business community, as a faith-based community, as a community, what do you want... we need your input in order to make that decision," she said.
Reynolds told the attendees that "everything's going to be on the table."
The community leaders suggested a variety of methods of saving and raising money, such as consolidating schools, leasing property owned by the school system and looking into more affordable employee retirement and health benefits.
"I think every first dollar needs to be delivered to the classroom, and then you need to work off that," said Bill Seccurro, chairman of the Harford Business Roundtable for Education.
Sandra Monaco-Burton, president of the Harford County Council of PTAs, said school officials must find the money for initiatives such as implementing Common Core State Standards and the PARCC electronic standardized tests, initiatives that cost millions of dollars.
"We need to find a substantial way to save money," she said.
Monaco-Burton also noted tax increases might not gain traction among Harford County residents dealing with the current economic climate, especially those who must pay higher premiums for health insurance under new federal health care laws.
"This economic climate, the timing is horrible because we are all now being asked to enroll for our health benefits," she said.
Teri Kranefeld, manager of communications, Joe Licata, director of administration and James Jewell, assistant superintendent for business services, also spoke about the budget challenges facing the school system as officials deal with increased costs of doing business and unfunded mandates from the state and federal government.
Unfunded mandates include requirements such as providing transportation to homeless students – out of the county in some cases – educating youths in the custody of the state's Department of Juvenile Services and providing pre-kindergarten services to children.
School officials said the costs are shared with the state and federal governments, but the county school system ends up picking up the lion's share of the price tag.
The school system must also deal with Common Core and PARCC testing.
They also reiterated what they had presented in public input sessions earlier in the fall, when they unveiled an online tool that allows members of the public to design a budget for the upcoming 2014-2015 fiscal year with up-to-date revenue and cost figures.
Users cannot push the "submit" button until they have created a balanced budget.
"Use the home test," Licata said. "This is no different than your checkbook at home."
He noted the school system must handle a budget of about $400 million, but the principles of balancing income and expenses, as one does with a household budget, remain the same.
The Board of Education will also host five public meetings in January, and people can send their ideas via e-mail to email@example.com.
Board member James Thornton noted that "the model for public education in Maryland" is based on cooperation among local and state agencies.
Board members also stressed that the Board of Education is not a "funding authority," that its members cannot raise revenue.
"We'll never be able to self-fund to the extent that we would like to," Thornton said.
He asked audience members to consider "what is the investment that we're willing to make for the future of this county."