Harford County Public Schools Superintendent Sean Bulson presented his proposed $521.7 million operating budget for fiscal 2022 this week, a budget that includes an $18.39 million increase in funding requested from the county government.
The budget also reflects a number of uncertainties created by the COVID-19 pandemic, such as whether state funding for next year remains the same or decreases based on declining enrollment.
Bulson plans to increase the request for local funds, from $276.9 million for the current fiscal year to $295.3 million for the 2022 fiscal year beginning July 1, marking a 6.6% increase, according to the presentation the superintendent made to the Board of Education on Monday.
The request for state funding, for the time being, remains flat at $218.9 million. State funds are allocated based in large part on student enrollment, which for HCPS has declined by nearly 1,100, according to Bulson.
Students in Harford County, as well as public school students throughout Maryland, have been learning online during the current school year, and many have dropped out as their families seek alternatives such as private schools. More than 37,000 students were enrolled in HCPS as of the annual Sept. 30 count this past fall.
“Across the state they’re looking at over 34,000 fewer students this year than they’ve had in the past,” Bulson said.
School system officials across the state have heard of the potential for a “hold harmless” budget for schools by keeping funding flat next year. Officials will not be certain until Gov. Larry Hogan introduces his fiscal 2022 budget and it is approved by the Maryland General Assembly, which started its 2021 session Wednesday.
The budget presented Monday takes into account the “most likely outcome of the state funding, at least based on those things that we’ve heard,” according to Bulson.
“Until we see the governor’s budget, and until that’s worked its way through the entire [legislative] process, we can’t say for sure what that number’s going to be,” he said.
Another uncertainty is whether more stimulus funds are forthcoming from the federal government after President-elect Joe Biden takes office next week.
The school system received $7.1 million in federal stimulus money, as allocated to Harford County through the CARES Act passed by Congress in March, in the current fiscal year.
The money was used for a number of expenses related to the pandemic, such as maintaining food service while HCPS provided meals to families in need, purchasing laptops for students, replacing electronic equipment in classrooms, paying employees to staff Learning Support Centers in the beginning of the school year, purchasing personal protective equipment for staff and other needs.
Bulson’s initial request for funding could be reduced if future stimulus money could be applied in different areas of the budget, such as summer learning programs.
The superintendent’s budget includes an $800,000 line item for summer learning, which has not been included in past budgets as the funding for such programs has been reduced.
“We had, I think, some very innovative programs last year that met the needs of a lot of students,” Bulson said of initiatives developed for the summer of 2020, as students tried to recoup any learning they lost following the sudden closure of schools at the start of the pandemic in March.
The superintendent said he feels that his proposed budget “represents the interests of this community.” The school system, which is not able to have in-person meetings to learn about county residents’ budget priorities, sent out a survey this year.
There were more than 2,100 responses to the survey, the largest segment being 1,267 from parents and guardians. Other respondents included students, teachers, administrators, HCPS staff and members of the community.
“This is the most input we’ve ever received with regard to the budget,” Bulson noted.
The survey included five questions on budget priorities, and participants were asked to rate each on a scale of 1 to 5. The top priority, with a 95.2% positive response, was “hiring effective staff,” such as teachers, paraeducators and administrators.
Hiring effective staff was followed, in order of priority ranking, by “investing in retaining effective teachers and staff,” “providing students with access to quality learning materials,” “investing in the social, emotional, behavioral health and safety of students,” then “maintenance and upkeep of vendor contract obligations.”
Much of the funding increase requested by Bulson covers adding positions for teachers and support staff, as HCPS is committed to expanding programs for students with special needs, plus officials are looking toward helping students catch up from lost instructional time during the pandemic.
The school board reviewed in late December data from the first quarter of the current school year, which showed a marked decrease in attendance and an increase in the number of failing grades at the elementary, middle and high school levels.
“That is our very first and our greatest priority,” Bulson said of hiring effective staff.
Bulson has proposed funding in the unrestricted operating budget for 93.6 new positions, including 15 shifted from grant-funded positions in the separate restricted budget, in order to keep up with increases in salaries and benefits for those employees that would not be covered by the grant.
The school system’s proposed unrestricted operating, restricted and food services budgets come with a combined 5,214.8 positions in fiscal 2022, a net gain of 78.6, according to Bulson’s presentation.
The superintendent plans to spend $1.3 million more in the area of special education next year, to cover additional positions to support the growth of the STRIVE program at Fallston Middle School and a Classroom Support Program at Jarrettsville Elementary School, as well as tuition increases for placing students with special needs in private programs outside HCPS and rolling two staff members over from grant-funded positions to the operating budget.
He also wants to fund 10 additional positions to support special education programs such as Future Links, move part-time employees into full-time special education positions at various elementary schools and hire more speech pathologists at a cost of $633,543.
More than $701,000 has been budgeted to cover 13 grant-funded positions in the pre-kindergarten program as the number of children in the all-day pre-K program increases.
Bulson has budgeted more than $165,000 to help pay internet service fees, as more than 800 “hot spots” have been allocated to help students enhance their internet service at home.
The “largest-ticket item” in the increase in operating funds is more than $8 million for the employee salary and wage package, as HCPS officials conduct contract negotiations with two employee unions, according to Bulson.
He also outlined sections in the budget “where we need to make investments to provide additional support in our schools,” such as hiring six instructional coaches, eight remediation teachers for the elementary level and eight more remediation teachers for secondary students — a combined cost of $1.79 million.
Bulson described the remediation teachers as “one part of the effort to address some of the challenges, the remediation” needed as students recover from the pandemic.
The instructional coaches are meant to help new teachers, especially those hired this year and for the next school year, who have not had “a normal internship experience” while student teaching during the pandemic.
“It’s just one area where we know we’re going to see increased need for support for teachers, because we know we’ll be bringing many people on board who haven’t had the same preparation as others before them, who came to us in their first year,” Bulson said.
Three additional teaching positions are proposed to support students whose first language is not English, a group of students Bulson acknowledged have “struggled in particular through COVID and virtual learning.”
Another $1.5 million has been budgeted for annual leases and replacement of digital devices. The school system has been able to use federal CARES Act funds to put computers in the hands of all students and staff, a “one-to-one” ratio officials have been trying to achieve for many years but has been stymied because of a lack of funding.
Bulson said he and his staff hope the devices will “become a regular presence in our schools,” even once students return to in-person classes, that they can use to support learning in school and at home.
“In order for them to be constantly replenished, we will need to reach a place where our operating budget has sort of a carved-out place for that recurring cost, which is the lease cost to cover devices for 38,000 students, plus about 5,000 staff members,” he said.
Bulson wants to hire six more school psychologists and two more school counselors to support those working with large elementary school populations, for a cost of nearly $693,000.
He noted that the need for additional people in those areas is due to “COVID, the conversations about mental health, mental wellness, and just in general the great need of support for students.”
“This is an area that we have needed to continue to grow for years,” Bulson said.
Board members ‘really pleased’ with budget
Board members thanked Bulson and his staff for the presentation, as well as meeting with them in small groups to give them information on the budget and space to ask questions.
“I am really pleased to see the restoration of some really essential positions that will support students,” member Sonja Karwacki said.
Member David Bauer noted the request for additional remediation teachers and said he suspects that “we would really need a whole lot more [positions], to do justice to what the school system is going to need” after the pandemic.
Member Joyce Herold said she is “really pleased” to see some “very critical” positions restored, although she acknowledged Bauer’s concern about the need for even more people.
“I understand that you’re asking for what you know you definitely need,” she told Bulson.
The budget is scheduled to come back to the school board for a vote Feb. 8, although a vote also can happen at the second board meeting in February should members request more time to discuss it. The budget must be submitted to County Executive Barry Glassman’s office by March 1.
The Board of Education will take a final vote on next year’s budget in late May or early June, following the adoption of the county and state budgets.
“We’re very fortunate that, in last year’s budget, Mr. Glassman supported our full operating request,” Bulson said. “That put us in a great position to be able to recruit, and I think we did some very successful recruiting last year.”
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He stressed the need to recruit people for the additional positions in the budget — should the funding be approved — and that Ben Richardson, the new assistant superintendent for human resources, has “a very tall charge of being extremely aggressive this year with regard to recruiting.”