Howard lawmakers dive deep into school budget

In a nearly six-hour session on Friday, the Howard County Council dove deep into the proposed budget for the school system, which is $54 million short than what the school board requested for next year.

Breaking from the format of previous budget meetings, school officials laid out dozens of "painful" reductions to meet Howard County Executive Allan Kittleman's $572 million proposal in county funding, which is $10 million above last year.

School staff detailed how the budget shortfall over what they requested would force them to scale back and adjust next year's budget. In many cases, staff described "cuts" in categories where proposed funding actually increased over this year's budget, especially if the council approves a fund transfer request by the school system for this year.

Kittleman's budget is $2.3 million over the state-mandated minimum funding level.

Possible reductions suggested by school staff included not meeting the school board's request to add 87 para-educator positions, cutting at least $150,000 in assistance for outdoor education, adding five furlough days and cutting 75 custodial staff positions and five central office staff, including some positions which have remained vacant over the last year.

At Friday's budget session, Howard County Schools Superintendent Renee Foose and Caryn Lasser, the schools' director of the executive services, said staff will reduce spending while ensuring student safety and instruction remained a priority.

"These are incredibly painful cuts that are impacting everyone at the school system." Lasser said.

The school system's explanation of cuts offered a needed perspective of the budget's real-life impact, said County Council Chairman Jon Weinstein.

Still, Councilwoman Jen Terrasa said, she found reductions for support staff to help bus drivers manage disruptive behavior on buses "horribly alarming."

"I don't even see how that could be an acceptable solution," Terrasa said.

County Councilman Calvin Ball expressed concern on reduction to outdoor education, including financial support for students with free and reduced meals.

"We fought for years to get outdoor education. We just got it," Ball said.

Frank Eastham, executive director of school improvement and administration, said the school system also found the cuts incredibly difficult.

"These are not decisions we would want to make," Eastham said. "We don't like the fact that we have to do this again," he added.

Like last year, Kittleman directed funding into specific categories, and proposed a $13.5 million reduction in fixed charges, which includes funding for employee health benefits. The reduction is offset by a request from the school system to shift $14 million into that category this year, a move Kittleman said the school system could apply next year.

Funding for health benefits remains the "elephant in the room," said Beverly Davis, the school system's chief financial officer. The health fund, which is part of that category, is projected to end with a $20.4 million deficit at the end of this year, Davis said.

Reductions based on current estimates include $484,000 less for instruction-related materials, a cut that William Barnes, the schools' curricular programs director, said was about as much as the school system could possibly "tolerate."

Councilman Greg Fox questioned how "dire" the cuts truly were for costs associated with plant operations, noting that the category was set to get an increase of around $477,000 if the council approves a transfer requested by the school system this year.

He also questioned why the school system was requesting moving $1.1 million out of maintenance of plant funds, part of which funds custodial staff, despite school officials' mounting concerns about failing to meet the community's standards of maintenance.

"I'm thinking we shouldn't transfer that," Fox said after school officials indicated possible consequences included dust getting thicker because of limited custodial staff.

Davis and other school system officials warned a "new normal" could be coming as the school system moves to close positions otherwise held vacant for the last year and defer maintenance costs.

The most contentious moment came when Terrasa asked for clarification on how the school system's funding allocations in categories aligned with the overall budget book.

Responding to a school system official who indicated information had already been provided, Terrasa said, "I can read. I'm a product of the Howard County school system."

Foose shot up to suggest a staff member help more directly after some back-and-forth between Terrasa and another school system official.

School system officials also indicated they plan to begin the job search next week for a new diversity and inclusion coordinator — a position that was the focus of a public hearing on the budget earlier this week.

The council will continue its session on the school system's budget on May 4. A vote on the overall budget is scheduled for late May, and changes to the school budget are expected. Already, Kittleman has filed an amendment to reallocate $1.3 million to fixed charges and $1 million for pension increases.

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