Howard school board starts work on $742 million budget request

When an unprecedented number of teachers turned out for a public hearing on Superintendent Renee Foose's proposed $742 million operating budget request, they criticized the lack of a placeholder for raises. But a placeholder is coming, Foose said — she and the board are simply following the process used in years past.

"We will be talking about that through our negotiation process," Foose said at a work session Thursday, Feb. 6 as the Board of Education gets to work on refining the request."We plan to follow the exact same model we did last year and put placeholders in through these work sessions."

Foose said she would be recommending a placeholder to the board in a closed meeting following the work session. Last year, during work sessions, the board added $13.9 million to the request for teacher raises.

"We are going to invest in our people," she said. "We have said that from the beginning."

In a video posted to her Twitter Friday, Foose again reiterated the historic budget process of no placeholder in the initial budget.

"Make no mistake," she said. "There will be placeholders embedded in the budget for salary enhancements. ... I have said this before, and I mean this: I want our workforce to be the best paid in Maryland, and I'll continue to advocate for step increments and cost-of-living adjustments you deserve."

Board member Sandra French said the teachers seemed to believe the superintendent and the board didn't care about them, which was upsetting.

"As an old-timer, I have not seen (with former superintendents Sydney Cousin, Michael Hickey or John O'Rourke) in the first iteration of the budget any proposed salary increases," she said. "The goal has historically been that we all come to a happy agreement by the time we adopt the budget. In recent years, that hasn't been so successful but that goal has always been that increases would be in the budget."

Also at last month's hearing, members of the board's operating budget review committee called for information historically in the budget (a side-by-side comparison of what was actually spent in a given area versus what was budgeted) to be made available to the public. That information is now online.

At its Thursday work session, the board reviewed revenue sources and various curriculum areas. The work session also included a presentation on the zero-based budgeting model the district is using for the first time this year in creation of the budget.

With the new format, Board Chairwoman Ellen Giles said, members of the public and the board are "struggling just a bit." The new budget presents costs programmatically — for example, field trips taken by science classes are now accounted for in the science program portion of the budget, rather than in transportation.

The system's director of budget and finance, Bev Davis, walked the board through zero-based budgeting (essentially when a budget is built from the ground up, rather than tacking on additional funds), trying to address and dispel misconceptions about the new process.

For example, Davis said, the changes in the new budget aren't "a scheme to mislead" people, but rather a response to the superintendent's strategic plan. Furthermore, budget committee and board members in the past had said they wanted to see program costs more clearly, and that's what the zero-based budgeting approach does.

Davis also said it's not true that the program-budgeting model doesn't comply with state budgeting, accounting and reporting standards. Neither, she said, are there duplicate programs in budget or double-budgeting. Programs aren't limited to one category, she said — like the field trips and transportation example — so while line items can be in more than one category, the cost isn't duplicated.

The board has three remaining budget work sessions. On Tuesday, Feb. 11 at 7 p.m., the board will review budget sections on Foose's office, the facilities and transportation departments, the accountability department, organizational support services and finance and operations. On Wednesday, Feb. 12 at 7 p.m., special education, student services, health services, fixed and internal service fund charges and other funds. On Tuesday, Feb. 18 at 1 p.m., the board will review the capital budget and any unresolved issues and tentative budget decisions.

The board will formally adopt the operating and capital budget requests Tuesday, Feb. 25 at 7:30 p.m. The budgets will then go before the County Council.

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