At Howard budget hearing, familiar frustrations with superintendent, school system

Calls for the resignation of Howard County Schools Superintendent Renee Foose resurfaced Monday evening as around 40 people stood outside the county government's rain-washed headquarters in Ellicott City before a hearing on the school budget.

Foose has no plans to resign from her position, a spokesman for the school system said Monday.

But her nearly five-year-long tenure as superintendent has been marked by struggle, including a failed state bill that would've allow the school board to terminate Foose and resident-led petitions to remove her from her post. Currently, only the state superintendent can fire a local superintendent in Howard County.

"She's fully committed to the school system and the students we serve and is willing to work with anyone who wants to focus on what's good for kids," said John White, a spokesman for the school system.

Rally participants wore blue in remembrance of Howard County student Grace McComas, and to raise awareness of cyberbullying.

Nancy Barker, a Montgomery County resident who taught in county schools for 37 years, said she was especially concerned about Foose's handling of mold issues and was unconvinced Foose truly cared about the needs of staff, students and teachers.

"We need her gone," Barker said. "I don't have a sign that's big enough to express the gravity of the problem."

A hearing on the school budget that followed the protest also echoed similar frustrations as last year.

Dozens of people, mostly parents and educators, told the Howard County Council that a budget proposal by Howard County Executive Allan Kittleman for the school system was too short to meet the needs of students and raised serious questions about the school system's handling of its finances.

Kittleman has proposed $572 million in county funding for the school system — $10 million more than last year but $54 million less than the school board's record-high request.

Residents urged the council to avoid increasing the budget and seriously questioned information about the budget provided by school system officials.

Christina Delmont-Small, a school board member, said she cannot in "good conscience" tell the council to support the budget after her thwarted attempts for budget information from the school system.

"We all have to ask and we all have to demand an answer… . Where is the money going?" Delmont-Small said. "Please don't approve until you know the numbers," she added.

Throughout the night, residents also called on the council to ensure funding was available for para-educators and a diversity coordinator to oversee efforts to promote multicultural understanding and inclusiveness.

"No more jerking this position around," said Tina Horn, a Columbia resident and the parent of a student in the school system, adding the position was necessary to meet growing concerns about racism in the community.

Funding for the position was cut in this year's budget, a move that drew concern from Councilman Calvin Ball who said he had been assured the budget would include funding for the position.

The school board added 72 para-educator positions to their request this year.

For the second year in a row, Kittleman directed funding into specific categories. Instruction-related funding got a $14 million boost while funding for fixed charges — a broad category that includes costs for employee health insurance and early retirement incentives — decreased by $13.5 million.

Speaking on behalf of Foose, who did not attend the hearing, school system chief financial offer Beverly Davis said the proposed budget would "inevitably compromise" the high standards of the school system. Davis said the school system request was necessary to meet the needs of the fast- growing school system, funding for pre-K education and teacher pension costs.

Calling the school system's budget request "unrealistic," Kittleman said he was confident the school system could find additional savings to cover fixed charges.

Paul Lemle, president of the county's teachers union, suggested the mismatch between the school board's budget and the administration's budget should prompt a careful look at revenue.

"No one on the side of any aisle wants to talk about taxes," Lemle said.

A year-end request to shuffle funding between categories — a common practice by school systems — also drew scrutiny at the hearing.

The school system is requesting the council's approval to move $14.1 million to beef up that fund — a move that Kittleman said suggests the school system can find additional savings next year to make the school system's budget "more structurally balanced."

Davis said the school system was able to anticipate cost cutting necessary because of unmet funding in last year's budget. If the council approves the $14 million transfer, she projects a fund that covers health insurance and benefits will fall into a $20 million deficit.

Concerns about the health fund permeated spirited back-and-forth between the council and school system officials last year. Councilman Greg Fox said the school system must develop a long-term plan to tackle the deficit.

Kittleman said the goal of his budget was to ensure instruction and maintaining salary increases for teachers took priority.

When his office asked the school system to suggest how they would distribute funds in categories for next year, the school system provided a scenario that included a $1.7 million cut in instruction and increased funding for fixed charges by nearly $6 million compared to this year's budget.

By law, the council's ability to restore funding is limited. The last time the council increased funding was in 2007 for a capital project.

The council will hold a work session on the budget with school system officials on Friday.

"Looking back to last year, this looks awfully familiar," said County Council Chairman Jon Weinstein. "Tell Dr. Foose we look forward to seeing her on Friday."

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