After several frustrating work sessions, county officials say a budget solution is getting closer for the Howard County Public School System.

One topic has been the subject of heated debate between elected school and county leaders: the schools' healthcare fund, which is running dangerously low. In an effort to replenish the fund all at once, the Board of Education requested $507 million from the county for fiscal 2014 — an amount officials said the county can't afford.

County Executive Ken Ulman's proposed budget totals $966.7 million, $497.5 million of which is for the school system. It's about $10 million less than what the board asked for, and some members are worried a tighter budget would mean program cuts.

"I can't help but be sad we've come to this as a system," board member Ann De Lacy said at a work session Thursday, May 16. "We hear from all the politicians that the schools are the engine that drives the economy of Howard County. ... This is not about our kids, this is about Howard County. Will we be at the point where we have to increase class sizes, lay-off staff, cut programs, close schools? We are the stewards and we have to fight for what we believe in."

Operational cuts aren't what the county is asking for, said government spokesman David Nitkin. The one line item being discussed is the healthcare fund.

Through the course of three work sessions Tuesday, May 14 and Thursday, May 16 — two with the County Council and one among the board — board members were told to find possible cuts in other areas in the hopes the fund can be replenished on an installment plan. The board's proposal had included a request for $14.46 million, and school officials said Thursday that number was about $2 million less than new projections. The county's proposal is $4.7 million for the school's healthcare fund for fiscal 2014.

The school system's healthcare fund reserve has been steadily decreasing in the past year as claims and the cost of healthcare go up. In fiscal 2011, the ending fund balance was $21.6 million. At the end of fiscal 2013, it was $4.8 million, and the projected fiscal 2014 balance is just $226,820. Meanwhile, the total uses of funds is increasing, from $82.9 million in fiscal 2011, to a projected $111.8 million in fiscal 2014.

Before the budget is approved, council members asked the board to identify $1-to-$2 million in cuts in other parts of the budget in a good-faith effort to take to Ulman.

"I think you have to say there's some things in there that you can offer up," Council member Courtney Watson said. "It's going to go a long way with the executive to say the Board of Education has come up with these cuts and we say we can have a phase-in plan."

Ulman said he appreciated the board and the council working together to "develop creative solutions."

"I am confident that we will reach an agreement that protects our educators, financially and health-wise," Ulman said.

A phase-in plan over the course of two years — which the board unanimously supported — would mean about $8.5 million a year put back in the healthcare fund. Thursday night, the board approved a list of possible cuts by a vote of 4-3. Board members Sandra French, Brian Meshkin and Cindy Vaillancourt voted against the cuts.

Those possible cuts include $500,000 in utilities, $116,680 for an administrative intern, $69,030 for AEDs and $183,130 in instructional supplies. Ten cuts were included in the list, totaling $1.3 million.

"Why do we need a line-item reduction now?" French said. "I have a problem with making these items the scapegoat."

Vaillancourt, too, was opposed to identifying cuts prematurely. While board members were adamant on not cutting anything that would impact the classroom, Meshkin said cutting instructional supplies would do just that.

"We know what the impact of that is," he said.

Board Chairman Frank Aquino said that with a relatively short window of opportunity — the council is set to vote on a final budget Thursday, May 23 at 11 a.m. — "we're going to have to do a little bit more.

"We're going to have to tighten our belts in the hopes we get more funds," he said. "Unless we do that, we're really not going to go anywhere and we're going to have to make some really hard decisions."

Last year, the schools' budget was $703.7 million, $482.3 million of which came from the county. This year the total request for the school system is $721 million. The $497.5 million from the county is more than twice the required maintenance-of-effort the county is required to contribute to the school system, Nitkin said, and still fully funds the classroom.

"While most other counties in Maryland are providing the bare minimum for education, County Executive Ulman is providing twice the required increase — more than $15 million in new dollars — to keep our schools great," said Howard County spokesman David Nitkin. "The proposed education budget fully funds the operational requests of the Board of Education, and includes full funding for more than 130 new positions. It will allow a new elementary school to open. It will allow teachers to prepare for the Common Core Curriculum. It will allow us to continue to use technology. We are funding excellence."