Harford County Public Schools leadership has left the realm of reality as it applies to budget management.
The decision that no doubt will be getting the most attention in the coming weeks is a recommendation by the administration, and approved by the board of education, to levy fees against students who participate in after school programs ranging from athletics to band to yearbook. This is a terrible idea, and one that could well result in less money being collected through extracurricular activities than comes in at present.
A more telling move on the part of the school system with regard to its level of understanding of budget realities is reflected in a statement about staffing cuts made by school board member Robert Frisch, who pointed out that the staff reduction proposals considered "all come from the bottom," meaning teachers.
Frisch had proposed an alternative to the plan from the administration of outgoing superintendent Robert Tomback that would have funded six teaching positions at the middle school by eliminating the positions of several school staff who draw six figure salaries. This proposal to cut managers in favor of saving teaching positions was defeated by an 8-1 school board vote (Frisch cast the only vote to make this sensible adjustment).
As it stands, the school board approved a budget for the coming school year that reduces the staffing level – which stands at the end of this school year at 5,369 – by 115 teaching and other positions, with 46 of those positions being actual layoffs and the balance being lost as a result of retirements and other departures leaving positions that won't be filled.
No doubt, the proposal to eliminate teaching positions (and forgo teacher raises) was devised by upper level staff in the school system, not by teachers and others who deal directly with students.
To some degree, the school system administration, the board of education and the local teachers union have focused criticism about the finances of Harford County Public Schools on the administration of Harford County Executive David R. Craig and the Harford County Council. The reason: the county government got a request from the school system for a funding allocation of $241 million, which constituted a $21.2 million increase over the current academic year. The county kept the budget flat, essentially providing a funding level equal to that of the current academic year.
On the surface, it might seem unreasonable to expect the school system to operate at the same level from one year to the next with the same amount of money because there will be costs that go up that are out of the control of the school system: fuel for buses, electricity, health insurance for employees and so on.
A closer look at the numbers, however, tells a different story. The school system's budget has been increased incrementally almost every year over the past decade, even as enrollment has declined. In 2002, the school system served 40,203 students. In the recently concluded academic year, the official enrollment number had fallen to 37,657. Furthermore, the school system's enrollment projections for the decade ahead show enrollment is likely to continue declining until the 2016-17 school year when it hits a low of 36,851. After that, slow increases are forecast with an enrollment of 36,906 expected in the 2019-2020 school year.
At present staffing levels, the school system has a ratio of seven students to each full-time employee. While the figure includes everyone from teachers to principals and custodians, it is still rather telling considering the average class size, as of a 2011 school system report on the subject, stands at 21 students.
It seems rather clear the school system in the past several years has failed to make the transition from being one where enrollment is increasing to one where enrollment, however slowly, is decreasing. It seems as though the level of administrative staffing, rather than the level of teaching staffing, is in need of downward adjustment, as had been proposed by board member Frisch.
Meanwhile, the plan to charge fees of $25 to $50 per student per season or activity to participate in extracurricular activities has the strong potential to end up being penny-wise but pound-foolish. Though the money doesn't show up on the books of the school system, many extracurricular activities already generate substantial revenue to support themselves. Entrance fees are charged for many athletic contests and theater productions. Yearbooks are purchased by, not given to, students. Booster and parents organizations form for many activities including but not limited to sports, band and theater and raise a lot of money. The various PTAs also raise money, some of which is used to assist extracurricular activities.
In charging fees for extracurricular activities, the school system runs the risk of alienating families who already pay a lot for their children to participate in those activities. The mind set can easily shift from one of "I'm happy to support my kid's after school activities," to one of "Why should I make a donation when I've already paid a fee for this."
On the whole, the look of the budget adjustments made by the administration of the school system, and approved, 6-3, by the board of education (with dissent on the part of Frisch, Alysson Krchnavy and Francis "Rick" Grambo) have the look of decisions made from on high by people out of touch with students, parents and teachers.
The impending departure of Superintendent Tomback, combined with projections for flat to decreasing enrollment, mean the school board is at an important junction with regard to the management of the most important of local government organizations. When the board hires a new superintendent, it needs to find someone who is committed to being in touch with the community, and who has a more realistic approach to dealing with financial issues.
The three board members who dissented on the budget that includes the extracurricular fees, like it or not, are going to have to be the ones who take leadership positions in this effort, otherwise we can continue to expect our school system to do less with more each year.