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School union leaders, citizens push Harford council for greater education funding in fiscal 2021

Chrystie Crawford-Smick, president of the Harford County Education Association, speaks to the Harford County Council Dec. 17 about the need to increase school funding in fiscal 2021. She is with Stacey Gerringer, president of The Association of Public School Administrators and Supervisors of Harford County, and Danielle Bedsaul (not shown), president of The Association of Harford County Administrative, Technical and Supervisory Professionals.
Chrystie Crawford-Smick, president of the Harford County Education Association, speaks to the Harford County Council Dec. 17 about the need to increase school funding in fiscal 2021. She is with Stacey Gerringer, president of The Association of Public School Administrators and Supervisors of Harford County, and Danielle Bedsaul (not shown), president of The Association of Harford County Administrative, Technical and Supervisory Professionals. (David Anderson/The Aegis / Baltimore Sun Media Group)

The start of the next fiscal year is still many months away, but the heads of three Harford school system employee unions — as well as a local teacher and a citizen — made an early pitch to the County Council to increase funding for education and reverse years of damaging cuts.

“Harford County Public Schools’ enrollment is larger than it was in 2011, and yet we have 504 — let me say that again, 504 — less adults to support our children’s mental health and educational well being,” Stacey Gerringer, principal of Abingdon Elementary School and president of The Association of Public School Administrators and Supervisors of Harford County, said during the public comment portion of the Dec. 17 County Council meeting.

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Gerringer appeared with Chrystie Crawford-Smick, president of the Harford County Education Association — the teachers’ union; and Danielle Bedsaul, supervisor of transportation for HCPS and president of The Association of Harford County Administrative, Technical and Supervisory Professionals.

The trio gave a similar presentation to Board of Education Dec. 9, when they asked board members to advocate for the schools to the county government as County Executive Barry Glassman prepares his budget for fiscal 2021 — the next fiscal year begins July 1, 2020.

“Together, we stand in solidarity on behalf of all five Harford County Public School employee unions,” Crawford-Smick told the County Council. “Collectively, we represent nearly 5,000 people, most of whom live in Harford County.”

Union leaders were among many people, along with teachers, parents, administrators, school board members and students, who made an intense push last spring for the council to support a $15 million increase in funding for HCPS, as requested by the school board.

Glassman increased funding by $10 million over the previous year, but advocates wanted the full $15 million as multiple instructional and administrative positions were at risk of being cut. The council voted 5-2 in favor of a county budget with a $10 million increase for the schools — 110.5 positions were cut going into the current school year.

“Harford County is still funded 24th out of 24 school systems [per pupil], dead last in the state of Maryland,” Crawford-Smick said. “Our children now sit in large class sizes, which exceed any best practice recommendation.”

She said class sizes have increased in elementary and middle schools, there are 339 fewer programs offered in high schools, plus teachers are teaching subjects outside their content areas. Fourteen administrators are splitting their time between schools, “which not only compromises student safety, but it negatively impacts the day-to-day operations,” Crawford-Smick said.

At the same time, overall enrollment has increased — preliminary data in HCPS’ Sept. 30 enrollment report shows an increase of 619 students to 38,445 this year. There are more students who are English-language learners and more in need of special education services, according to Crawford-Smick.

“Our students’ needs are more intense, and many of them are struggling with adverse childhood experiences,” she said, referring to early traumas that affect youths’ behavior as they get older.

Gerringer said school staff are often told that more money is not available for education, but she noted that financial reports indicate “a consistent pattern of underspending” by the county government in recent years, even as revenues grow. She added that the county’s current fund balance, or cash reserves, stands at more than $136 million.

Cindy Mumby, spokesperson for the county government, disputed Gerringer’s assertion about the $136 million fund balance when the union leader reported it to the school board. Mumby said the majority of the fund balance is assigned to various uses such as stormwater management, health care costs and retiree benefits, and only about $20 million is available for other uses.

Bedsaul urged the council to advocate for Glassman to provide more than one town hall meeting, during which the public can offer input on the upcoming budget.

The county executive is scheduled to host a Virtual Town Hall on Jan. 23; people can submit questions ahead of time via email or social media, and then attend in person at Harford Community College’s Chesapeake Center or watch the meeting live online and ask their questions over the phone. More information about the town hall is available on the county website.

“We encourage you, as council members, to advocate for Mr. Glassman to reveal his proposed budget in a public hearing, which would include the factors considered and the specific formula utilized to allocate funds to educate our children,” Bedsaul said.

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Mumby said previously that there are no specific formulas for the county’s portion of education funding, which takes up about half of the local budget, although there are formulas for state funding of schools.

Glassman is scheduled to release his budget in April, and the County Council typically holds two public hearings on the budget in May.

Council President Patrick Vincenti noted during the meeting, during the portion reserved for comments from the president, that council representatives discussed education funding, along with other issues of concern, during the Harford County legislative delegation’s meeting Dec. 11 ahead of the Maryland General Assembly session in January.

Vincenti cited education-related concerns such as the “uncertainty” of the Kirwan Commission’s recommendations for increasing school funding statewide as well as finding additional monies for school construction and renovations.

Jacob Bennett, who teaches in Havre de Grace, took members of the Harford County Council to task during the Dec. 17 meeting, as a majority voted for a county budget that did not include the full $15 million increase in school funding requested by the school board.
Jacob Bennett, who teaches in Havre de Grace, took members of the Harford County Council to task during the Dec. 17 meeting, as a majority voted for a county budget that did not include the full $15 million increase in school funding requested by the school board. (David Anderson/The Aegis / Baltimore Sun Media Group)

Teacher weighs in

Jacob Bennett, a kindergarten teacher who works in Havre de Grace, called out the five council members who voted for the fiscal 2020 budget: Vincenti, Chad Shrodes, Joe Woods, Curtis Beulah and Tony Giangiordano. He spoke as an individual, separate from the union leaders who gave comments ahead of him.

He countered claims that the council was practicing “fiscal responsibility” when it approved funding as set for schools by Glassman, noting the same issue did not come up when raises for the county executive and County Council were approved in recent years.

The council approved legislation in 2013 increasing the county executive’s base salary from $90,000 to $130,000, set to take effect when the new executive took office in December of 2014. Then-County Executive David Craig could not run in 2014 due to term limits, and Glassman, then a state senator, succeeded Craig when he was elected and inaugurated that year. Glassman’s salary is $140,144 this year.

The council approved legislation in 2016 increasing the salaries of district council members from $36,750 to $43,500 and the council president, who runs for election county-wide, from $40,310 to $47,000. Those raises were meant for the council elected in 2018 and took effect at the beginning of the current fiscal year July 1.

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“This was not a vote about fiscal responsibility,” Bennett said of the council’s approval of the 2020 budget. “This was a vote about priorities — you voted against our schools; you voted to keep us in last place in the state as far as teacher-to-student ratios.”

Bennett added that the council “voted to make our county less appealing to potential residents by forcing us to offer a less competitive product in our schools.”

Bennett said children’s education “will matter a whole lot” when they are adults. He noted high school graduates make more money over a lifetime than high school dropouts, and that communities can save money in the health care and criminal justice sectors for every dollar they spend on education.

“Voting against our school funding is a selfish, short-sighted, misguided and politically horrible choice to make,” he said. “Choose different this year and fund our schools.”

Bennett said he will make sure everyone in Harford County knows the names of council members who do not “choose different,” and people will know that “you do not support our children.”

He did thank Councilmen Andre Johnson and Robert Wagner, who voted against this year’s budget, for “having the bravery to support children and love children and love our community, and not just their [political] friends.”

Forest Hill resident Rick Smith said he had not prepared any remarks for the council meeting, but he felt compelled to speak after hearing from the educators — Smith said later that his wife is an HCPS administrator and his children are graduates of Harford County high schools.

“I firmly believe, as a citizen of the county, that the number-one priority of any elected official in a local government is the education of our children,” he said.

Smith said it is “really appalling” to hear statistics about where Harford County stands in terms of school funding. He noted education is the top priority for anybody seeking a place to live and raise their family.

“I firmly believe that it is your sole responsibility to do everything you can to support, and to raise the standards of where we stand as a county with our educational funding,” he told council members, receiving applause from the audience upon ending his remarks.

Vincenti noted, in a follow-up call Monday evening, that votes against the county budget do not just affect funding for school operations but money for salary increases for teachers, Sheriff’s Office deputies and county government employees, as well as all other county services.

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