The Harford County Board of Education and County Executive Bob Cassilly announced an agreement Thursday that would provide additional funding for the public school system in fiscal 2024.
The joint agreement is the result of extensive discussions between the school system, the Cassilly administration and County Council members to resolve concerns about next year’s budget and to lay the groundwork for better communication and cooperation, according to a news release issued jointly by the county and the school system.
The Harford County Board of Education has agreed to contribute $15 million from its fund balance, a surplus of funds from previous years, toward the fiscal 2024 budget. Cassilly has agreed to contribute an extra $10 million. That would add $25 million to next year’s budget, in addition to the expected increase in state funding, the release said.
Under the joint agreement, the county executive’s share would be used to raise teacher salaries and/or reduce class sizes. The funds would be drawn from a 2.5% cut across all county departments in the current budget, along with other cost savings.
“The additional funding from the County Executive will reset our local maintenance of effort, or the minimum amount the county must provide HCPS in future budgets, to $314 million,” school Superintendent Sean Bulson said in a statement. “This is $10 million less than the school system received last year and $29 million less than what was requested. The HCPS budget department is working diligently to balance the HCPS FY24 budget based on this new level of funding.”
Bulson added: “We are hopeful we can minimize the impact this year on students and staff. We will continue to share information about the cost associated with state initiatives like [Blueprint for Maryland’s Future] as well as local initiatives that are not funded through the state or federal funds.”
On April 14, Cassilly announced his proposed budget for fiscal 2024, which included $39 million less than the school system had requested in its proposed operating budget.
According to Cassilly’s proposed budget, Harford County Public Schools would have received $304.8 million in operating funds in addition to funding to upgrade schools, including: $20 million for Harford Technical High School; $17 million for Aberdeen Middle School; and $16 million to plan a new combination elementary school and Harford Academy, which serves special education students.
At the time, Cassilly said that his proposed budget was “fiscally responsible.”
On April 18, Harford County Public Schools issued a news release that called Cassilly’s budget a “worst case scenario,” stating that it would be the first time in decades that the school budget received such a sizable reduction. Cassilly’s proposed school budget was $19.4 million less than this year’s budget.
The Board of Education requested $343 million in local funds to support the fiscal 2024 unrestricted budget, including a $19.2 million increase for teacher salaries. The total proposed increase to the unrestricted budget is $51.5 million, an increase of 8.9% over the current budget.
Bulson had said that without the funds to raise teacher salaries, the county would have trouble competing with other school systems in the region to attract and retain teachers.
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Earlier this month, Harford County Education Association, members of the Harford County Democratic Central Committee, and other community groups held a rally to protest Cassilly’s proposed budget cuts to the school system and other public programs. Parents and students also participated in the rally, which was held before the first of two public hearings on the fiscal 2024 budget by the County Council.
As part of the agreement, Harford County government and Harford County Public Schools will follow a new budget process providing for year-round cooperation and sharing of information between the two agencies. Both agencies have also agreed to continue working together to reduce redundancies, touting Harford County’s joint fleet maintenance facility for publicly owned vehicles, including school buses, as an example of the partnership.
“It’s vital that we support our teachers with a good salary, and I am pleased that we were able to reach an agreement to increase school funding without raising taxes, “ said Cassilly. “When I talk to teachers, their main concerns are making sure the school system directs funding to the classroom and maintains discipline so they can teach. Since I came into office five months ago, I’ve been working every day with my staff to look closely at our own budget and find efficiencies. The money we saved is helping us add extra funds to the budget for HCPS.”
Cassilly continued: “In Harford County, we value open and vigorous debate about important issues. When that is done, we sit down as mature adults to find solutions. This agreement is the result of that process which included many discussions my budget team and I had with HCPS over four months, and those discussions will continue year-round. This is what leaders are supposed to do.”
There are still several steps remaining in the county’s budget process before the final budget is approved. Joe Cluster, Cassilly’s chief of staff, said the county executive will send his budget amendments to the County Council, and a final vote from the council on the fiscal 2024 budget is expected by June 15. The new fiscal year begins July 1.