After years of tight budgets and an influx of children in need, Baltimore County Superintendent Dallas Dance has asked for one of the biggest budget increases from the county in a decade.
The $1.5 billion budget request comes after Baltimore County has spent less per pupil than other large school systems in Maryland. It includes a 5 percent pay hike for teachers and staff — their first cost-of-living increase in five years, more money to buy elementary students computers, and funding to hire teachers of students who speak English as a second language.
As they craft budget proposals, school superintendents across the Baltimore region are trying to balance the fiscal constraints of strapped state and local governments against growing enrollments and rising low-income and immigrant populations. In addition, many are seeking to increase teacher pay after years of modest or no raises.
"My job is to identify need," Dance said. He added that he was judicious in his request, by first asking: "Can we reallocate the current dollars before we ask for new dollars?"
Because the state faces an estimated $750 million shortfall, most school systems are only seeking funding from Annapolis to cover the cost of increasing student populations. The state is required to cover most of those costs and allocates additional money to jurisdictions with a large number of students who need extra support, such as special education children and those learning English.
Many county governments, which rely heavily on state aid, also face tough budgetary times in a sluggish economy. Nonetheless, some superintendents are asking for more from counties.
Dance is asking for an 8.7 percent increase in county funding for the next fiscal year. Anne Arundel County's superintendent is asking for 4.8 percent more, and Howard County wants an additional 4.2 percent. While Harford County has a declining enrollment, it also is grappling with a structural deficit. The superintendent there is asking for an additional 5.6 percent from the county.
Over the next several months, school boards will hold public hearings, then vote on the budgets. The county councils must then approve the budgets, usually in May. The city schools and Carroll County have not yet released their spending plans.
While Baltimore County hasn't raised property taxes in more than 25 years, it also spends less per pupil than other school systems. Baltimore County spent $13,779 per pupil for the 2012-2013 school year, or nearly $3,000 less than in Baltimore City. The county's per-pupil spending is slightly more than Dorchester County but less than Montgomery, Prince George's and Howard counties.
Across the region, schools have seen an influx of new immigrants, particularly Hispanic students.
Baltimore County Budget Director George Sarris said the school system wants to add 31 new teachers who specialize in working with immigrants, many of whom are learning to speak English, for their first couple of years in school.
The number of teachers of students for whom English is a second language has not increased in seven years, and the ratio of these teachers to students has risen to 1-to-75 in the elementary schools. The additional teachers would bring that ratio down to 1-to-44.
Anne Arundel also wants to hire more teachers to help international students, and is seeking $851,000 to add 13 new teaching positions.
Across the state, the achievement gap between immigrant students and the rest of the student population has been growing. Only 20 percent of English language learners passed the state high school tests in 2014 compared to 91 percent of all students.
Baltimore County, along with the state, has seen another demographic shift that also makes education more costly. In the last decade, the low-income population, as measured by those who qualify for subsidized school lunches, has doubled to 40 percent of the school population in the county.
In addition, because of rapidly rising enrollments, Baltimore County plans to add about 100 new teachers.
County Executive Kevin Kamenetz declined to comment on the budget proposal, saying the process is in the early stages, spokeswoman Ellen Kobler said.
But, she added: "Anyone who's been following the ... budgetary situation knows that this will be a very challenging year."
Teacher salary increases in Baltimore County were negotiated in a process that included county officials, and superintendent Dance said he expects the request would be funded. The starting salary for Baltimore County teachers is below Baltimore City and Howard, Montgomery and Anne Arundel counties.
In Howard County, about half of the increase in the proposed budget would be allocated to a one-time stipend negotiated through arbitration with the teachers union last summer.
Dance also wants $13 million for technology to buy every first- through third-grader a computer.
At the same time, he is cutting discretionary funding that school principals use to pay for field trips, equipment and instructional materials. For instance, elementary school principals had $142 in discretionary funding per student last school year. That would decrease to $89 per student under the budget proposal.