Howard school board adopts $758.7 million budget request

The Howard County Board of Education Tuesday night approved a $758.7 million operating budget request for fiscal year 2015, almost $17 million more than Superintendent Renee Foose proposed earlier this year.

The budget includes $21.4 million as a placeholder for teacher raises. An initial lack of a placeholder has been a heated issue during the budget process, with hundreds of teachers turning out to a public hearing in an unprecedented move to ask for raises.

Despite the placeholder for raises, Howard County Education Association President Paul Lemle said after the vote that he and teachers were "tremendously disappointed that the board's budget doesn't help students or educators. It increases standardized testing by more than a million dollars while putting new computers and TVs in front of board members."

The placeholder means nothing until an agreement is reached in negotiations, Lemle said.

"The board has yet to address educators' common sense proposals for long-term stability, useful technology and adequate time to communicate with parents, plan great instruction and examine student work," he said.

Board members told teachers gathered at the meeting that the budget was in the county government's hands, and that board members would continue to fight for them.

"The placeholder for raises isn't as much as we want it to be," said Vice Chairwoman Ann De Lacy, former HCEA president. "We want (to pay) the best in the state, because we are the best in the state. What we have is what we believe to be the max the county will fund, and we're going to have to fight for that."

The request also includes about $80,000 in additional funds for a nurse to be placed at an undetermined school, and about $100,000 for a study and assessment of school capacity projections and redistricting processes by a consultant.

This year the budget request approval comes without recommendations from the Operating Budget Review Committee, the citizen group tasked by the board to review the budget.

At the board's meeting Thursday, Feb. 20, Lemle, who is also chair of the group, and co-chair Christina Delmont-Small, who is also president of the PTA Council of Howard County, came before the board to deliver a report, which detailed concerns about the budget. The report states that while the changes in "presentation and philosophy (zero-based budgeting) have merits, ... they do have two unintended effects." Namely, Lemle and Delmont-Small said, it's more difficult to compare costs, and there is far less specific explanations of line-item expenses.

This is the first year in recent memory the board tasked the group with looking at four specific areas of the budget: food services, transportation, homeless students and funding for nonpublic students. But several of their meetings were canceled because of snow, cutting time short, and Lemle said that the group never reached consensus among its members to look at those four areas.

The board had voted to direct the group to look at those areas, but that vote came after Foose and staff had already directed the group to do so. Additionally, while a side-by-side comparison of what was spent versus what was budgeted in years past was eventually provided to the group, and to the public as it had in years past, Delmont-Small said the format still didn't allow for easy comparison.

At the group's presentation last week, Board Chairwoman Ellen Giles said she was "a little disappointed, frankly," at a lack of recommendations.

The request now goes before the County Council, with public hearings and work sessions set throughout may. A specific hearing on the board's request is May 8. A final budget will be sent back to the board for adoption May 22.

The board also adopted a $97 million capital budget request for fiscal year 2015, a $641 million capital improvement plan for fiscal years 2016-2020, a $1.1 billion long-term plan for fiscal years 2015-2024, and a long-range systematic renovations plan for $332.6 million.

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