The chief of Howard County schools has unveiled her most ambitious operating budget proposal since taking office in 2012.
Superintendent Renee Foose's request of $838.7 million for fiscal year 2017 represents a $62.3 million and 8 percent increase over the current year's approved budget, and includes funding for 56 new positions to support enrollment growth.
In her past three budget proposals, Foose requested two to three percent increases.
"The size of our investment in education must rise in proportion to our county's growth," Foose wrote in the budget's introduction. "We expect to welcome nearly 1,100 new students to our classrooms next year, adding significant costs for new teachers, instructional supplies, and facilities – costs that are not included in Maintenance of Effort funding."
Maintenance of effort refers to the minimum amount of funding the county must provide its school system under state law. It is based on student enrollment from the preceding year — in this case, 54,870 for the 2015 to 2016 school year, which is 1,088 students less than the 55,958 that the school system is expecting next year.
"That is a minimum that was put in place by the state because many counties were not meeting a sustainable level for their school systems," said Howard schools finance director, Beverly Davis. "Howard County has historically funded well above maintenance of effort."
The superintendent is requesting that the county provide 71.1 percent of next year's budget, 1 percent more than it is funding this year. This amounts to $595.9 million — $51.8 million more than current funding and $40.7 million more than the maintenance-of-effort threshold — to fund increases in employee health and pension plans; a placeholder for teacher salary increases next year; and new educators and instructional materials for the 1,088 students who are not a part of the maintenance of effort calculation.
"This is much closer to the prior level of investment by the county before the recession," Davis said after the superintendent proposed her budget on Thursday. In 2012, county funding dipped to 68.4 percent of the total school operating budget from 71.4 percent in 2007. The county is funding 70.1 percent of the current budget.
The state is expected to provide 27.6 percent or $231.8 million, according to the superintendent's proposal, compared to 28.6 percent or $222.3 million in the current year. State funding is dependent on student numbers and county wealth, among other factors. The remaining 1.3 percent of the budget will be funded by miscellaneous revenue sources, such as building use fees, summer school tuition and fees for out-of-county students.
Howard County Educators Association Paul Lemle said he is encouraged that, in her budget proposal, the superintendent makes school employees a "major priority"; he pointed to the following sentence from her funding request: "The Fiscal Year 2017 budget must include sufficient funding to stabilize our workforce and strengthen our infrastructure if we are to sustain the level of excellence that our community expects."
The teachers union president also pointed to the superintendent's inclusion of a $13 million placeholder for teacher pay increases next year, the first placeholder Foose has included for contract negotiations, he said.
"The superintendent's proposed budget, if it doesn't include some kind of placeholder for ongoing negotiations, than it's really almost impossible to work out the contract," he said. "It's really hard to negotiate if there's no money in the budget to do it."
Jan. 29 is the deadline for contract negotiations between the educators association and the school system, which began in December and are currently in progress.
The next step in the county schools operating budget process is a public hearing on Feb. 2 at 7 p.m. After the board reviews and adopts the budget proposal, it will be submitted for review by Howard County Executive Allan Kittleman, who will pass his recommendations on to the County Council in April. The Council will work through and possibly amend the budget before voting on its adoption on May 25.
Foose's budget proposal is available at http://www.hcpss.org/f/aboutus/budget/fy17/fy17-superintendent-proposed-budget.pdf?q=fy17.