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'I know it is a big ask’: Baltimore County school superintendent requests $114 million increase in budget

Baltimore County School Superintendent Darryl L. Williams proposed an aspirational budget for next school year that would increase spending by $114 million, including an 11 percent boost in the county’s share.

He acknowledged that the request for additional money might need to be spread over several years, particularly because the state is not expected to boost educational funding to the county in the coming year.

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“I know it is a big ask,” Williams said, “but I felt compelled to say this is what I really think we need.”

Williams’ first budget as a new superintendent is a road map to where he will put his focus as he tries to improve achievement in a school system that has seen declining test scores in recent years.

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The new superintendent said he believes the county schools are understaffed and he called for adding more than 360 teachers to keep pace with rapidly growing enrollment and to provide smaller class sizes for schools with larger numbers of children in need.

He also would add more than $53 million to cover increases in benefits and salaries, and hire more nurses, school counselors and social workers. In all the budget calls for the addition of 482 positions.

“As a former teacher, education will always be my administration’s top priority," said County Executive Johnny Olszewski Jr., who cut back a similar budget request last year. “The superintendent and I share a vision for increased investment in our classrooms and our educators as well as an understanding that this work will take time and dedicated partnership. I look forward to engaging in a top-to-bottom review of the budget as this process continues.”

In a presentation before the school board Thursday night, Williams pointed to multiple charts that show how the county schools have changed over the years from a majority white school system with low levels of poverty to a much more diverse school system that now has more students of color than white students.

The county’s immigrant population and special education population is growing quickly, too, with hundreds of new students added each year in those categories. The number of students who are learning English has tripled in the past decade to 9,000 of the system’s 115,000 students. Williams hopes to add more teachers for both English learners and special education students.

Schools with a large high-poverty population also would get more teachers to help struggling students.

Williams said he wants to add some full-day prekindergarten spots and provide more money for maintenance. He would add some 65 bus attendants and give bus drivers training to help solve problems with transportation.

His proposed $1.7 billion operating budget also would take some money away from laptops — by giving middle schoolers the cheaper Chromebooks — and put the $6.8 million in savings into professional development for teachers. Williams would do more training during the summer months so teachers aren’t pulled out of classes during the school year, he said.

Cindy Sexton, the president of the teachers union, was encouraged by the budget, particularly the emphasis on lowering class sizes for special education and immigrant students learning English as a second language. Even if the county does not fund all of the budget, she said, it is an acknowledgment from the superintendent of the needs.

However, she said, the money for salary increases is not “enough for a significant increase."

“We keep losing teachers," she said. "We are up to 203 since August 1.”

Teachers need higher salaries, more planning time and a lighter teaching load to keep them in the county, she said.

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Leslie Weber, a long time education advocate in the county, said she thought it was a balanced proposal that recognizes how much the school system has changed in terms of student make-up and needs.

“I appreciate Dr. Williams’ focus on special education, English learners and Title I schools,” Weber said . “I was pleased to see requests for pre-kindergarten program expansion, reduced device costs, increased textbook funding, and hiring desperately needed counselors, social workers, psychologists, school nurses, and bus drivers and bus attendants.”

The budget must be voted on by the school board and then sent to county officials for final approval. A public hearing on the budget will be held on Tuesday, Jan. 14 at 7 p.m. at the central office on Charles Street.

Williams’ request for such a sizable increase is comparable to the one requested last year by the prior superintendent that was then cut by Olszewski.

After the County Council voted for its first tax increase in several decades, the school system saw a 4.4 percent increase in county funding above what is required by state law. The overall budget rose by $82 million, however, boosted by a more than $20 million increase in state funds.

If, during this session, the Maryland General Assembly passes the recommendations of the Kirwan Commission, which provides for a $4 billion increase in state and local funding over a decade, the county would get significant increases above current levels. However, that plan does not call for significant increases to Baltimore County until the following year.

The Baltimore County School Board as a whole has not yet taken a position on whether it supports the Kirwan recommendations, although Williams said he does.

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