With Superintendent Renee Foose's $742 million operating budget made public last week, the work to review and tweak the proposal has begun for both the Board of Education and a group of appointed citizens — a group that worried some of their purview was being curtailed by the administration.

The operating budget review committee is a group chartered by the board to act in an advisory role for the budget. It's made up of citizens appointed by board members and various organizations like the Howard County Education Association and the PTA Council of Howard County.

In the past, the members reviewed the entire budget. This year, however, committee members said Foose and her staff directed them to look at four specific areas of the budget, and members have said staff have told them to look at those four areas — and only those four.

"I'm new to the committee, but it's been pretty blatant, with staff telling us 'that's not in your charter; you should not be looking at that,' " said Tonya Tiffany, a review committee member appointed by board member Brian Meshkin.

The review committee was directed to look at food services, transportation, homeless students and funding for nonpublic students, which occurs when the school system pays for students to attend specialized schools that offer services not available in public schools. Maybe those are controversial areas that need extra attention, Tiffany said, but she worried that focusing on those areas could be a distraction from other budget areas that need a closer look.

Although chartered by the Board of Education, board member Cindy Vaillancourt said the four areas were never voted on before the committee received instructions in December from Foose's staff.

Board members did eventually vote on those four areas at a board meeting Thursday, Jan. 9, unanimously approving them for focused review.

Board Chairwoman Ellen Giles said Foose put together a list of areas based on canvassing board members for what they wanted reviewed. When Giles was elected chairwoman in December, she and new vice-chairwoman Ann De Lacy "reiterated that those were important focus areas," Giles said.

Giles said that last summer the committee came to the board expressing concerns that they needed to have a more focused discussion, hence the direction for the four areas.

"There was a need for focus, but it does not mean that there are restrictions," Giles said at Foose's budget presentation Tuesday, Jan. 7. "All areas are still open for review."

That, Tiffany said, was a "vindication" for the operating budget review committee.

Christina Delmont-Small and Paul Lemle, presidents of the PTA Council and Howard County Education Association, respectively, and co-chairs of the review committee, said they didn't think the areas of focus were "diversionary" but were still frustrated by them.

"Those areas were far bigger than the [review committee] — they have policy implications and federal restrictions," Lemle said. "The charter of the [review committee] is that it reviews school system programs to see if they're properly funded in the budget, and these focus areas limit the scope of the [review committee] to maybe 10 percent of the budget."

Budget differences

This is the first year the school system has undergone a "zero-based budgeting" process, said budget director Bev Davis. Essentially, the budget process this year worked from the ground up, rather than building on what was already in place.

"Historically, our budget practice would be called incremental budgeting — you look at the programs that exist in your budget and you ask for a slight increase because of growth or inflation, but you don't have the analysis to step back and look at the big picture," she said. "You start at zero and establish what you want your program to be and fit in the pieces around that. Last year isn't your starting point. Zero is your starting point."

The new practice resulted in a savings of $3.4 million for the school system, according to the budget proposal, as the system redirected existing resources to other programs.

Yet absent from the budget is a side-by-side comparison of what specific programs received in previous budgets, versus what they actually cost, said Delmont-Small. When the school system spends less in an area than budgeted, it can go into the next year's budget — $1.3 million not spent in fiscal 2014 is being used to pre-fund the fiscal 2015 budget.

Financial data detailing what was budgeted versus what was spent was provided to the review committee, but Delmont-Small last week asked for it to be made public as in years past.

"Generally, [those numbers] are for account managers," Foose said. "You would need some sort of advanced degree. ... We structured [the budget] so it was more user-friendly. The details are for program managers."

Foose said she would talk with Davis about making that financial data available.

"In order to get a sense of budgeting from one time period to another, it's helpful to have those numbers," Delmont-Small said.

Delmont-Small asked that Foose "have the same confidence in the community to understand the information."