The chairman of the Howard County Council capped a contentious budget season between county officials and the school system on Thursday by calling for an audit of education spending and creation of a school budget review committee.
Council Chairman Calvin Ball, a Democrat, said an audit is needed to answer questions about the "enormous discrepancy" between what County Executive Allan Kittleman proposed to spend on schools, and what the Board of Education had requested.
School board Chairwoman Christine O'Connor fired back in a statement Friday, calling the move a "maneuver [that] appears to be an attempt to undermine the independence of the Board and politicize education as never before in Howard County."
Thursday's discussion came as the council formally approved a $1.8 billion county spending plan for the next fiscal year. The approved budget includes $808 million for schools -- $18 million more than the school system received last year, but $50 million less than what the school board requested.
O'Connor said the move, which she said creates a conflict of interest for the county's auditor, was redundant because the school system is already audited by an independent external auditor and the Maryland State Department of Education, the Maryland Public School Construction Program and the State of Maryland Office of Legislative Audits.
These audits provide "non-biased assurance that the school system's funds are handled appropriately," O'Connor wrote.
The committee will help the Council analyze the Board of Education's budget and provides recommendations in preparation for the fiscal year 2018 budget. The audit by the county's auditor may include analysis of items that have been frequently questioned in public sessions, including special education, the health and dental fund and legal services.
The legislation, which will be introduced June 6, will be considered in June.
School system officials contended the budget, which does not fund $39.4 million from the school system's fund for fixed charges — does not adequately cover the school system's needs. This year, the school system's health and dental fund will be in a deficit of between $12 to $15 million, according to Davis.
Ball said "numerous questions have been raised about the enormous discrepancy" between Kittleman's budget that warrants closer analysis. Confusion surfaced in work sessions, with some council members expressing concerns about the school system's figures.
"The Executive and his budget office have assured us repeatedly that his proposed budget fully funds the needs of our school system, including its negotiated agreements with our educators, and yet, the Board and its staff insist that the proposed budget will necessitate drastic cuts," wrote Ball in a statement.
During a work session last month, Councilman Greg Fox, a Republican who also suggested an audit of the school system, said, "I think a lot of it is a bunch of BS, to be kind."
The budget review committee would review preliminary plans for the new school site and deferred capital maintenance funding and provide recommendations for any improvements to the fiscal year 2018 budget, and report its findings back to the Council. The committee will be staffed by at least one member appointed by each councilmember and other stakeholders.
In January last year, the school board voted 6-1 to disband a longstanding citizens review committee tasked with reviewing the school budget. Some board members questioned the value of the committee's format. The budget review committee has operated as a board-chartered committee for nearly the past two decades, evaluating the superintendent's proposed budget and providing comments and questions to board members.
The legislation will be introduced on June 6 and testimony will be heard at a public hearing on June 20. To submit written testimony, email firstname.lastname@example.org. The Board of Education will adopt its budget for next year on Tuesday at 8 am.