Harford's 2013 school budget still up in the air

The final 2013 budget for Harford County Public Schools could be still up in the air by as much as $24 million because of ongoing labor negotiations and uncertainty about state funding – as well as by the county's refusal, thus far, to give the system any more money next year.

Instead of discussing Harford County Executive David Craig's proposed budget like every other department, members of the county council listened as school system representatives presented their own, separate budget during a review session with the council Thursday afternoon.

Craig allocated $214.3 million for the schools in the proposed 2013 budget he sent to the council earlier this month, but the school system wants the county to fund $238.5 million of its $447.3 million operating budget next year. What Craig proposed to give the schools next year is just $200,000 more than the county provided in 2012 toward a total school operating budget of $428.8 million. Most of the remaining funding comes from the state government.

For 2013, the school system also proposes a $24.5 million restricted fund budget – required state or federal programs to which the county doesn't contribute money directly, as well as a $15.7 million capital budget.

Confusion between '12 and '13

Several council members seemed confused by the situation with the operating budget, which school officials said came about because of labor union disputes that date back to last year, when the school system and its unions agreed to a raise package based on the assumption the county would provide the necessary money to fund it. Craig did not, however, and the council backed him.

The 2012 contract with the teachers union, the school system's largest union, has been tied up in a protracted binding arbitration process the state mandated starting last year. At this point, the dispute is in court, but the school labor board essentially ruled the school system acted in bad faith by not funding the 2012 contract and needs to consider coming up with the money to do it.

Superintendent Robert Tomback explained to the council that the school system typically aligns its budget with the county executive's budget.

"We did not do that this year," Tomback told the council. "One order the [labor board] gave was that they ordered us back to renegotiations and they cited the fact that, indeed, we amended our budget prior to that budget coming to you as the final authority in Harford County."

Tomback said that by aligning the school budget with Craig's, "we essentially narrow the parameters of renegotiation."

He added that he did not agree with the labor board's finding and noted that school system is appealing it. At this point, however, he added, the school system must comply with the existing order and go back to the negotiating table on the 2011 contract.

Council can't act unilaterally

"It still does not deal with the fact that in accordance with the charter, specifically section 5-12, it is true the council can raise the tax rate to increase the amount of money we have available to deal with your request, but the problem is we cannot by law adjust any of the revenue estimates," Council President Billy Boniface told Tomback. "That has to be done by the county executive."

Regarding negotiations, Boniface added, "We can't cut the county executive out of the picture."

"I agree with you," Tomback answered. "I say we are complying because we have no choice. To not comply would be foolish. We are following that ruling, but simultaneously, we are appealing that ruling because we do not agree with it."

The picture is complicated by a state law that permits a county council to restore any school funding requested from the county that has been reduced by the county executive.

In other words, for 2013, Craig has reduced the school system's request for funding from the county by the $24.2 million that now is in question. But, as Boniface and other council members noted, to put any of that money back would almost certainly necessitate a tax increase, one that could not be put into play unless Craig agreed to spend the additional money.

Earlier this month, Craig said he believes the school system can make reductions elsewhere in its current operations and use that money to increase pay for its 5,200 employees, rather than depending on the county to just give it more money.

School officials said Thursday it is a "real possibility" that they could have to come before the council again in the summer with an amended budget request.

Councilwoman Mary Ann Lisanti said the situation puts everyone involved into "very uncharted waters."

"I find this to be a very difficult situation, to sit here and talk in grand terms about a very uncertain budget situation," she said.

"I can't remember the last time a county government was facing [a situation] without having a state budget and also a situation of being presented a county executive budget and board of education budget with a separation of $24 million," she continued.

"That has to be very unsettling, not only for us as leaders of the county, but also unsettling for our taxpayers," she said. "What are we doing, is probably the question people at home ask."

Teacher pay, negotiation timing

One of the school system's top increased spending requests is for higher teacher salaries, an issue Tomback said has been exacerbated with reduced state funding for local schools and the attempt by the governor and legislature to shift teacher pension costs to the counties.

"We do believe this will be four years with no raises," he said.

Lisanti asked who establishes timelines on the union negotiations and contract agreements and was told the timeline can be changed by the school system. She said that timing needs to be seriously reconsidered.

"That is a systemic problem, in my mind," she said. "If there is one thing that could clarify that or streamline it, it would be to look at that timeline and make it consistent with the budgeting process."

Boniface also told school officials he did not want a repeat of past misunderstandings over the operating budget and negotiated union contracts.

"If there is something you have concerns in this operating budget, the best way to do that is through communication," he said. "Let's not go down this road again."

Vision for services

Aside from the budget conundrum, council members had some questions Thursday about the school system's overall operations.

Lisanti asked Tomback about his vision for the delivery of services to students, which prompted the superintendent to defend the priority of serving students above the circumstances of a difficult economy.

"In times of potential economic contraction, in times of economic uncertainty, we in the school system can get lost in all of that. We can feel bewildered in all of that," he said.

"We can allow ourselves to become weighted down by all of these concerns, because you haven't even touched on those things that are critical in the things we are looking at in the field of education," he said. "If we allow ourselves to do that, we will lose our way and we will do a disservice to every one of our almost 39,000 students."

Tomback said he tells teachers, when students are getting off buses in the morning: "Just look out of the window. Look at every one of those boys and girls getting off those school buses. That is where our focus is."

"We must be very clear as to what our mission is and how we're going to get there," he continued. "The standard for achievement continues to rise, as [it] should. It's a challenge that every one of our employees understands."

Instead of "wring[ing] our hands," Tomback said officials must decide what to do.

"This is the budget we believe we need to accomplish our mission. We understand there are fiscal realities," he said.

Food service questions

Another issue raised by the council about the school operating budget was food service, which shows items like ice cream and ostensibly less healthy foods receiving increased funding.

"It just seems inconsistent," Councilman Dick Slutzky said, noting schools have a movement to improve nutrition.

School administration chief Joe Licata said items like ice cream must be provided in addition to healthier foods because students still want ice cream.

"If they don't buy anything, then there will be no food services," he said.

Lisanti disagreed.

"I absolutely, unequivocally reject the idea that we have to have bad foods to sell to children because that is what they want," Lisanti said. "That is philosophically wrong."

"We never said we have to have 'bad food.' We never said 'bad food,'" Licata replied.

"I just think: healthy mind, healthy body," Lisanti said. "That is a philosophical belief, and I just wish school [officials] here would think about that, too."

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