xml:space="preserve">
xml:space="preserve">
Advertisement
Advertisement

Carroll County school board approves operating budget, filling funding gap opened during pandemic

The Carroll County Board of Education voted unanimously Wednesday evening to approve its operating, food service and debt services budgets for fiscal year 2021.

The board members agreed to delay their approval of the capital budget to allow more time for discussion with the county. Superintendent Steve Lockard will write a letter to the county commissioners to make the case for forward funding parts of two projects in FY21.

Advertisement

The school system hopes to “get to the front of the line” when the state begins to allocate its funds for school construction. The topic is expected to soon go before the county commissioners.

In the operating budget, most of the economic effects of the coronavirus pandemic are felt in a $4 million reduction to the budget for negotiating increases with employee unions. That bucket is not wiped out entirely but is significantly decreased. No positions are expected to be eliminated, and six special education positions that were discussed earlier in the year are still being added.

Advertisement
Advertisement

Carroll County Public Schools is also spending about $8 million of its fund balance, or reserve money, on items including recovery programs to fill in gaps in learning during the pandemic, infrastructure repairs and temporarily funding new employee positions.

Operating budget

The approved operating budget is about $371 million in total. Chief Financial Officer Christopher Hartlove summarized how CCPS balanced the budget to reflect about $5.7 million less funding than they planned for this winter when they filed their budget request.

That $5.7 million is accounted for through “unrestricted revenue” that the school system can allocate where it needs. Restricted revenue is income that must go to specific areas or programs.

The two major funding sources for CCPS are the county and the state. Even before the onset of the coronavirus, the prediction for state funding dropped about $1 million from what was first expected. At the county level, Carroll is proposing a “flat” budget this year because of the revenue uncertainties relating to the pandemic and the echoing effects of many residents losing work.

Advertisement

This means the CCPS funding from Carroll would be at “maintenance of effort,” with the schools receiving the same amount per pupil as the previous year. Earlier in the year, the two bodies had worked on a $6.2 million, or 3.13% increase, over the previous year. The new numbers they approved are for a $1.2 million, or 0.59%, increase. This comes from a slight bump in enrollment numbers.

Hartlove said the school system saved about $1.1 million from zero-based budgeting. They originally hoped to put this toward strategic goals for the school system, but instead it will help balance the budget. Zero-based budgeting meant that all departments tried to cut down on things that weren’t in line with the strategic plan. Some cuts included professional memberships or forward funding extra office supplies. The goal was not to affect the classroom in any way.

In the original request, CCPS wanted to fund six new special education positions, one school psychologist position and one on-site technician for technology support. At a public hearing earlier in the year, special education teachers spoke out about overfull caseloads and crushing amounts of paperwork that took away from their ability to focus on working with students or to have a personal life.

The special education positions remained in the operating budget, and the other two will be funded temporarily through the school system’s reserve funds, called the fund balance.

Fund balance

In the discussions Wednesday, board members agreed that they did not want to go forward without adding a school psychologist to support students though the transition back to the physical classroom. They chose to take the cost of that hire out of their fund balance for a period of three years. After that, it will be evaluated.

That hire could become a permanent member of CCPS staff through normal employee attrition of staff leaving or retiring. Or, in a more flush budget year, the board could decide to add that position permanently to their ongoing costs.

The fund balance, which is the school system’s reserve, sat at about $16 million at the start of the financial year — close to the $16.8 million limit. They came into the process knowing it would be time to spend.

Two items related to recovering from students learning at a distance from mid-March through the end of the school year.

About $2.7 million will go toward making up services for special education students that they weren’t able to receive outside of the school building. Most of the funds would be to pay teachers or contracted hires for hours outside normal school hours next fall.

The other was about $926,000 for the summer learning recovery program, which would be optional for students like those who were struggling even prior to leaving classrooms, students who received “incomplete” on their fourth-quarter grades or students who participate in programs like ESOL.

On Wednesday, staff said they were going ahead to plan the summer recovery to take place through distance learning. They said there’s no indication whether the state’s restrictions will be lifted enough by the summer to allow in-person learning at the schools. It would also add logistical challenges and costs of making bus routes to transport students to school and opening facilities. Jason Anderson, chief academic, equity and accountability officer, acknowledged that it is “not ideal and feels counter-intuitive.” The program is still being developed.

If either of these programs has been overfunded, the excess will go back into the balance at the end of the year, Chief of Operations Jonathan O’Neal said.

Other fund balance costs include five more temporary positions in IT and instructional technology. The rationale is to tie these in to the switch to online learning that happened for about 80% of CCPS students and support that even after the pandemic. The school system planned to increase online learning and use of classroom technology gradually over the next three years, but put an emergency version of that plan into place in a matter of weeks after Maryland closed schools, staff said.

Other fund balance uses the board approved include maintenance projects and infrastructure items. After the 2008 recession, the school system scraped down the ongoing budget for this, and the practice for the past several years has been to approve a one-time chunk of funding for the year from the fund balance.

Hartlove was not able to estimate just how much would go back into the fund balance on July 1 after the close of the current financial year, because the use of school buildings and other factors have been so different from the norm. But he told the board that he was comfortable that the reserve would remain healthy enough to allow them to spend what they eventually approved.

The board will next meet for a coronavirus-related update May 20 at 5 p.m.

Recommended on Baltimore Sun

Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement