Howard school board adopts $725.5 million budget

The Howard County Board of Education has adopted a $725.5 million operating budget for fiscal year 2014, up more than three percent from last year's budget.

The unanimous vote on Tuesday, May 28, came after the County Council last week approved a $923.5 million budget, $497.5 million of which goes to the school system. The school board also adopted $216.3 million in state funds, $379,000 in federal funds. Other incomes totaled $11.8 million.

Board members Ann De Lacy and Cindy Vaillancourt were absent from the vote.

Board chairman Frank Aquino lauded the plan, which he called "a better budget than we've had for a number of years."

"The board will continue to do its part with Superintendent (Renee) Foose in leading the charge to find efficiencies where we can and rededicate those savings into the classroom," he said.

At its Tuesday session, the board also approved an $83.5 million capital budget for fiscal 2014, and a Capital Improvement Plan for fiscal years 2015-19 totaling $570.3 million. The long-range master plan for fiscal years 2014-23 totals $1.73 billion.

The budget includes $302.8 million in instructional salaries. Aquino noted the board is in the midst of negotiations with various bargaining units, including the Howard County Education Association and the board "has historically followed the principle that we will fund whatever we negotiate."

HCEA President Paul Lemle said that the ongoing negotiations include potential changes to health benefits, and the union and the school system have been working for several years on how to properly set rates, which are currently at 13-15 percent.

"With the budget established, it's critical that we arrive at a collaborative solution on health care for thousands of employees who work so hard to make our schools great," Lemle said

The council did not fund the board's full request of $507 million, and debate throughout joint work sessions centered on the school system's health care fund, the balance of which had dwindled to $226,820. As recently as fiscal 2011, the ending balance in the health care fund was $21.6 million, but claims had increased at a pace not matched in budgets since then. The board had asked for an increase of more than $17 million to replenish the fund.

The county's budget initially included an increase of $4.7 million. Board members agreed on other budget reductions totaling $1.3 million to go into the fund, which was matched by the county. Another $1.3 million came from the county by way of backfilled one-time costs, and $4 million came from the school system's unappropriated fund balance. Those funds are part of a two-year phase-in plan to replenish the health care fund.

"The county administration listened to the concerns of the teachers and the Board of Education," said county spokesman David Nitkin. "We worked closely with the county council and this is a very solid resolution. This whole debate illustrates the difficulties with health care and its costs, and we need to keep working together to make sure we're providing the best benefits in the most reasonable way possible."

Board members said the budget was a good step, if a small one, in the right direction.

"Fireworks should be going off with this budget," said board member Sandra French. "We're moving forward and it's wonderful."

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