Harford County Public Schools has $6.1 million surplus

The Harford County public school system still has a $6 million budget surplus, but it's not as much as it was last year by about $2.7 million, the school system's top finance official said Monday.

The school system's annual audit for the 2010-11 fiscal year, completed by SB and Company LLC, was presented to Harford County Board of Education members at their meeting in Bel Air by Assistant Superintendent of Business Services James Jewell.

The firm did not find any outstanding issues in the board's annual audit, Jewell said. The yearly audit, which was for the fiscal year ending on June 30, is required by the Maryland State Department of Education.

The general fund balance decreased from a little more than $8.8 million to almost $6.1 million; however, the school system's total cash reserves stood at $26 million at the end of the fiscal year on June 30, according to the audit.

Of that total, however, $10.7 million was already obligated for spending in the current budget, according to the audit.

Jewell said Tuesday that money in those reserves not designated by federal and state grant funds will be going toward things like prior encumbrances, FY12 expenditures, an other post employment benefits (or OPEB) contribution, future health insurance and an emergency fuel reserve.

Expenditures for the $422 million general fund were under budget for the general fund by $7.6 million, according to the audit, while total revenue fell short by only $90,000.

The overall financial report attributed the reduction in expenditures to "spending containment strategies" throughout the year in response to a decrease in funds from the state and county governments

Of the $7.6 million in the budget the school system didn't spend, $1.7 million was subtracted for a "transfer to health care rate stabilization fund," according to the audit.

According to the financial report, Harford County Public Schools' net assets exceeded its liabilities by $460 million by the end of the fiscal year. The school system's total assets were more than $624 million, with the total liabilities totally over $164 million.

Because of an increase in the OPEB trust fund of $27.7 million, HCPS' debt increased by $27 million, the report said. OPEB covers such non-pension costs as health care insurance that is provided for several thousand retired employees of the school system.

During Monday's meeting, the school board also approved the transfer of $1,258,979 to an OPEB investment trust fund run by the Maryland Association of Boards of Education. The investment money is in excess of insurance costs for the school system, but still goes toward the eventual payment of benefits of retired employees.

Board member Rick Grambo asked, "Why is it [the transfer] so important?"

Edward Fields, director of budget for the school system, explained that the investment fund is not "a regular budget item," but receives its money when there is an excess like there was with the insurance costs.

The board then unanimously approved the transfer of funds.

Student achievement

In other business from Monday's school board meeting, Associate Superintendent Bill Lawrence presented student achievement data as it pertains to the board's goal of preparing students for college and beyond.

"[Attendance] is clearly a very important goal," Lawrence said. Attendance rates for the county's high schools have stayed consistent since 2007, at 93 percent, he said, while elementary and middle schools rates rose from 95 percent in 2010 to 96 percent in 2011.

One area that Harford County students fell behind in was the number of seniors taking the SATs and their scores on the writing portion of the college entrance test.

While 53 percent of seniors took the SAT in 2011, higher than the national average of 47, the statistic is significantly lower than the Maryland average, which is 68 percent.

Harford's mean score for the writing portion of the SATs was also lower than the state and nation's average at 481out of 800.

"We must return to a focus," Lawrence said in preparing students for writing and reading. Board member Alysson Krchnavy agreed with that sentiment.

"The elephant in this room is SAT writing," she said. "We [have] to change something we're doing."

Former teacher honored

Maudeline A. Banks was inducted into the Harford County Public Schools' Hall of Fame as its 163rd member Monday.

Banks, who retired in 1979, taught at the Bel Air Colored School, now Hickory Elementary, Havre de Grace Consolidated School, now Roye-Williams Elementary, Bel Air High School and Southampton Middle.

She was presented with a plaque and certificates from the board, as well as county and state recognizing her 28 years of service.

Board members congratulated Fountain Green Elementary School for being named the winner for best character education practices during the 2010-2011 academic year and honored as a School of the Year by the Maryland Center for Character Education.

Five schools throughout the state are awarded the title each year. Fountain Green's foundation of the character education program "actively promotes core ethical values as the basis of good character," Teri Kranefeld, manager of communications, said.

Danielle Taylor, a history teacher at Church Creek Elementary, is the Maryland recipient of the Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History award for National History Teacher of the Year.

"I was very surprised," Taylor said of her win. "I feel that history is very important.

Teachers from each state, the District of Columbia, Department of Defense schools and U.S. territories are selected as finalists, while one is recognized as the National History Teacher of the Year. Taylor received a certificate of recognition, $1,000 and books and classroom resources in her name that will go to Church Creek's library.

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