Facing a deficit projected to reach $50 million by summer, Howard County school officials are scrambling to find ways to stop a prolonged bleed in the school budget.
Howard County Superintendent Michael Martirano has introduced a spending reduction plan that could include an increase in class sizes and staff furloughs as part of his effort to stop the deficit from growing next fiscal year.
The plan would reallocate $19 million within Martirano’s proposed $850 million operating budget to go toward fully funding the school system’s health and dental fund, which is used to pay for 85 percent of each employees’ health care claims. Since 2011 the school system has depleted the fund by diverting money that should have paid for health costs to cover other expenses.
The plan includes an elimination of elementary school world language programs and full day pre-kindergarten classes and removal of a pilot program to expand middle school sports. It would also increase class sizes and, subject to negotiation with employee union groups, implement four-day furloughs for employees.
Martirano called the plan a “draconian” approach during a recent Board of Education meeting, but one that is necessary to stop the deficit from growing. If approved as proposed, the plan would cut at least 30 staff positions.
“I’m just challenged by the fact of overseeing an organization that has this deficit that we can’t rely on just saying, ‘let’s ask for more money from the county,’” Martirano said at a school board meeting this week. “If we’re going to have any good standing with them, they’re going to ask us what we’re doing internally to get this together.”
The second portion of the superintendent’s financial plan is to ask the county and state government for assistance in paying off its existing debt.
A budget request for the county is first sent to County Executive Allan Kittleman for approval and then to the County Council for a final vote; last year Kittleman cut the school system’s request by $54 million, which was then approved by the County Council, giving the school system $626 million in school funding from the county. Martirano has proposed increasing this year’s request by $21 million over the 2018 approved budget, to ask the county for $594.5 million; the majority of the rest of the $850 million budget would be funded by the state.
Kittleman will not comment on the school system’s budget until a request is submitted on March 12, according to county spokeswoman Deidre McCabe.
Howard County Education Association, the county’s educators’ union, Colleen Morris said she believes fully funding the school system needs to be the county’s top priority over other programs and services, calling schools the “economic driver” of the county.
“I’m hoping that the board continues to look at what they need as an educational system, which includes both employees and students, and that it realistically states what we need,” Morris said. “And then the county has to work within its constraints to fund what we’re requesting. But I’m hoping the county doesn’t over-conservatively estimate what their revenues are so that they can fund the priorities of the school system and community.”
Board of Education chairwoman Cindy Vaillancourt said officials are considering all options when it comes to solving the school system’s budget woes and that class size increases would be inevitable.
However, Vaillancourt said it’s difficult to craft a budget plan without knowing how much funding the county will approve or what the final state of union contract negotiations will be, two things the school system won’t learn until after it has submitted its budget request.
“In previous years I understand people not believing the gloom-and-doom conversations,” she said. “We’re not in jeopardy of having to turn the lights out, but these are not going to be pretty reductions and reallocations. Everything's going to be touched.”
Morris said it’s possible the bargaining unit could come to an agreement with the school system by Monday when the board approves its budget, and that based on bargaining leaders’ reports, the talks continue to go “amicably.”
Other possible cuts that have been floated among board members, Vaillancourt said, include elimination of summer school and deferring the purchase of new textbooks, renovations to school theaters and replacement of school scoreboards. Board members have also suggested reducing contingency funds and the school system’s cushion in its utilities fund, created in case building utility costs increase during the year.
The board is expected to approve a budget on March 5 to be sent to the county executive by March 12. The County Council is scheduled to approve a final county budget on May 30.
This story has been updated to reflect that County Executive Allan Kittleman introduced a $572 million budget for the school system in 2017 that was sent to the County Council for approval.