The council held its second of two public budget hearings Monday night at North County High School. More than half of those who testified asked for increased education spending — and many who did not speak publicly wore the teachers union’s signature red color in support.
Several Spanish-speaking women joined Cristabel Catalán to advocate for bilingual facilitators. The school employees help families with limited English skills navigate things like student-teacher conferences, paperwork and field trips. Issues surrounding school funding, equity, teacher pay and services for struggling learners were clear priorities for the audience.
Katherine Bain, a Severna Park resident, called for deeper investment in public services.
“I have lived in this county for 20 years now and have witnessed the slow decline of public services because of our obsession with keeping taxes low,” she told council members. “I see it in the overcrowded classrooms in the public schools my children are in and I hear it from the best teachers, many of whom have chosen to leave this county.”
Teachers have long complained that neighboring counties offer more competitive wages. The starting salary for a teacher with a bachelor’s degree in Anne Arundel County is about $2,500 less than what’s offered in Baltimore City, according to data from the Maryland State Department of Education. Anne Arundel teachers salaries start at around $46,000.
Marie Whipp, a 19-year veteran teacher from Pasadena, said those numbers are discouraging new teachers from coming to Anne Arundel.
“To see them kind of look at Anne Arundel as a second choice is very disheartening,” she said about the teaching interns she works with. “We need to be competitive.”
Pittman has proposed raising the county’s income tax from 2.5% to 2.81% and property tax from 90.2 cents to 93.5 cents per $100 assessed value to bring in revenue for education, public safety and infrastructure. Money from the increased property taxes can only be spent on education since the county has a self-imposed tax cap, according to state law. That cap recommends a rate of 90.1 cents per $100 assessed value.
Not everyone supports the measure.
A handful of residents spoke in opposition of the tax hikes and cited concerns from low-income and senior households. Older residents are worried about how higher taxes would affect their fixed incomes, said Suzzie Schuyler of Linthicum.
Glen Burnie resident Tim Grooms called on councilmembers to consider other options. He suggested officials shrink the school district’s main office’s budget and, instead, infuse that money into classrooms.
“Education is very important, but it gets a lot of money,” he said. “We don’t tax our residents into oblivion.”
Residents are split on the issue of taxes, but not over party lines. Whipp, a Republican, supports Pittman’s plan.
“I really can understand every point of view because I am a homeowner,” Whipp said. “It makes me nervous that taxes will go up but it’s not just about me, it’s about everyone in the teaching community.”
Students’ access to mental health services has also been a priority for county residents and politicians. Pittman’s proposal includes funding for 14 counselors, six psychologists and six social workers — fewer than what the Board of Education requested in February, but more than what schools Superintendent George Arlotto asked for in December.
Though Megan Moulsdale, a junior at Severna Park High School, said it isn’t enough. At least two students in Anne Arundel County have died by suicide since the beginning of 2019, according to school officials and sources close to the deceased.
“We are in dire need of help and that is an understatement. Suicide in our county is a very recent problem and one that has engulfed us in heartbreak,” she said. “For this reason, understaffing those who must console children that lost a friend at age 16 is blatantly irresponsible.”
Thirteen years ago, school counselor James Gordak had a caseload of 250 students in Fairfax County, Virginia. Now he deals with upwards of 350 kids in Anne Arundel, he said. School districts nationwide have struggled to meet the staffing needs of growing student bodies.
“Those extra 100-150 students make a major difference in terms of quality of care I can provide,” Gordak said. He went on to support the county executive’s plans to raise taxes.
The tax hikes, approved as is, would cost a homeowner with a $400,000 home an extra $132 in their property tax bill. A family making $100,000 — the county median household income — will pay an additional $310 a year.