O'Malley's pension proposal could have big effect on Harford schools' budget

With Gov. Martin O'Malley's proposal to shift 50 percent of the state's teacher pension costs to the counties, the Harford County Public School System is questioning what changes may have to be made to its own proposed budget for 2013.

O'Malley's proposal, which would need to be approved by the Maryland General Assembly, is an effort to address Maryland's $1 billion shortfall in the budget.

If passed, the Harford school system will face a shortfall of more than $8 million. Before O'Malley's announcements, the school system's proposed budget estimated that state aid would be $33,360,568.

"This was our forecast," Ed Fields, director of the budget, said during Wednesday's Harford County Board of Education budget work session.

James Jewell, assistant superintendent for business services, noted that "legislation is subject to change any time in Annapolis" and that he did not have "all the details at this point" on the proposal. The state has paid for teacher pensions "since inception," Jewell added.

School board member James Thornton asked Jewell about the governor's reasoning for the proposal.

Jewell didn't know that answer, except that shifting half of that $1 billion state budget shortfall would shift "half of the problem" onto the counties. He said HCPS legislative liaison Kathy Carmello would keep the board updated on the legislation's progress, or lack thereof.

Joseph Licata, chief of administration, told the board he believes there will be a concerted effort statewide to handle the bill with "lobbying efforts or alternatives of the bill."

Superintendent Robert Tomback reiterated Jewell's comments about how things could change up until the end of the legislative session.

Jewell pointed out that while employee pensions, which are school employees not in the teacher pension system, have steadily increased since fiscal year 2009, teacher pensions have had only a slight increase between fiscal years 2009 and 2011, then a decrease in 2012 and will stay the same for fiscal year 2013. He wondered if the state is over funding the employee pension system or under funding the teacher system.

The Maryland State Retirement and Pension System, he noted, determines pension increases and decreases.

O'Malley's proposal could put a wrench in the board's plan for salary increases for HCPS teachers.

Chad Whitehead, a substitute teacher, spoke in favor of teacher raises in the coming fiscal year before the budget discussion began.

Whitehead asked the board to "consider results of your actions and their results" on the students and staff.

He made several suggestions to the school board on how to reduce costs to allow for an increase in salaries, including using resources - textbooks, paper paychecks - in a more efficient manner, eliminate reimbursement for pursuing degrees in higher education and spreading budget cuts evenly throughout the school system.

"Realize the decisions you make will have a real effect on real people," Whitehead said.

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