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Harford school board adopts superintendent’s recommended $503.1 million fiscal 2021 budget request

Harford County Board of Education member Dr. Roy Phillips talks with members of the Sewell family of Fallston, including, from left, Wade, Emma and Ian Sewell, Monday after Phillips and his colleagues adopted HCPS Superintendent Sean Bulson's recommended budget request for fiscal 2021.
Harford County Board of Education member Dr. Roy Phillips talks with members of the Sewell family of Fallston, including, from left, Wade, Emma and Ian Sewell, Monday after Phillips and his colleagues adopted HCPS Superintendent Sean Bulson's recommended budget request for fiscal 2021. (David Anderson/The Aegis / Baltimore Sun Media Group)

The $503.1 million unrestricted operating budget request — as well as those for the restricted and food service budgets — proposed by Harford County Public Schools Superintendent Sean Bulson for fiscal 2021 was adopted by the Board of Education on Monday.

The board did not make any additions to the operating budget request for the 2020-2021 school year, which is nearly $25 million higher than the operating budget adopted for the current fiscal year. Board members also passed a $38.9 million restricted budget, which is largely supported by federal and state grants, and an $18.6 million food service budget supported by federal and state revenues as well as sales of meals to students.

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“This is such an important task for the board to perform,” Bulson said of voting on the HCPS budgets.

The proposed budget, which gets the majority of its revenue from Harford County and the state, will now be forwarded to County Executive Barry Glassman for his review. Glassman is scheduled to release his proposed county budget, which includes his recommended funding for HCPS and Harford Community College, in April.

The County Council has the final say on the budget and typically votes on the spending package in May following public hearings and work sessions with representatives from each entity that receives local funding.

Bulson is seeking $20.4 million more in local funding for next year; state funding also is expected to increase by $7.2 million. The superintendent hopes to add a net total of 115 positions to the HCPS workforce next year, both restoring positions cut during last year’s budget process and creating new slots as student enrollment increased by more than 600 this year and demand for special education, English as a second language and mental health services increases.

The school board must then reconcile, during its meeting in early June, its budget request with the actual funding allocated by the county and state and adopt a budget before the next fiscal year begins July 1.

Members of the public, including students, parent, teacher and community advocates, urged board members to be strong advocates for the budget request. They highlighted the need for increased staffing to reduce large class sizes.

“If you fund our schools fully, our children will be smarter, and if you don’t fund our schools our children will be a lot less educated,” Ian Sewell, a third-grader at Youth’s Benefit Elementary School in Fallston, said.

Ian and his older sister, Emma, who is in fifth grade at Youth’s Benefit, gave their views on the budget ahead of the board’s vote.

“I came here tonight because people say that there’s nothing I can do,” Emma said. “I refuse to believe it, because I know the difference between right and wrong.”

She and her family were among the many people who rallied last spring in a push to get the county government to fully fund a $15 million increase in local funds requested by the school board.

The county did increase funding for schools, but only by $10.7 million, and more than 100 positions had to be cut in order to balance the operating budget for fiscal 2020. The total HCPS workforce is slightly more than 5,000 employees serving 38,445 students in 54 schools, as of the current year.

“I know kids in my school who need more help learning properly,” Emma Sewell said. “They need all of the attention that they can get from the teachers.”

She noted that getting the extra attention will be “real tricky for them, let alone the teachers,” when classes have 30 or more students.

“I know that you know, deep inside, that we’re right,” Emma said. “I don’t want to see my kids growing up in a place where kids aren’t paid enough attention to, where they won’t have the experiences I had or to do what I did.”

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Sarah Penney, president of the PTA for Prospect Mill Elementary School, emphasized that “adequate staffing” would help reduce class sizes at the Bel Air-area school.

“We are very lucky to have an amazing staff at Prospect Mill,” she said. “They work very hard every day to do what’s best for our children.”

Penney said she and other PTA leaders would like school staff to have “the best resources available to educate our children and continue helping them achieve, without having to stretch resources as thinly as they have been forced to do.”

“We will continue advocating to the county executive and the County Council as well, as we have done in the past, in the hopes that the board will finally get the funding necessary to give HCPS a much-needed boost from being [last] in the state for per-pupil funding,” Penney said.

Penney and Ryan Blosser, a senior at North Harford High School, discussed what organizations affiliated with schools do to raise money to support their schools, such as the Prospect Mill PTA’s fall Panda Fun Run, which raised more than $20,000 toward a new playground for kindergartners and first graders.

Blosser is president of his school’s student government association, and he is vice president of North Harford’s parent-teacher-student association. He noted the SGA recently authorized spending about $200 on Spanish education programs for all Spanish classes.

“There’s only so much that we can do to help support our schools,” he said. “Those of you who sit on this board this evening, who vote for the superintendent’s proposed budget and then who advocate to the County Council on that budget, can make the biggest change.”

Board members did ask questions for clarification on several line items proposed by Bulson, but they did not recommend increasing the superintendent’s overall request.

Member Sonja Karwacki, speaking during the portion of the meeting reserved for comments from board members, lauded members of the County Council who have met with her and her colleagues, such as a recent meeting she and member David Bauer had with Council President Patrick Vincenti, council Vice President Joe Woods and Councilman Chad Shrodes.

She highlighted the meeting as an “opportunity to share some of the ways we can work together to strengthen our school system.” Karwacki also said she meets with Councilman Curtis Beulah, the council’s liaison to the school board, on a monthly basis and “we share a lot of information.”

Karwacki also noted she is participating in a round of visits to schools around Harford County, something she and other newly elected and appointed members have been doing recently.

“Thank you to all of the staff, for everything that you do every day to make our children’s lives enriched,” she said.

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