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Harford schools superintendent proposes $503.1 million budget that adds 115 positions

A more than $22.4 million increase in local funding is being requested for Harford County Public Schools’ operating budget for fiscal 2021, as school system officials work to add 115 positions, restoring some that had been cut last year.

Superintendent Sean Bulson presented his $503.1 million budget to the members of the Harford County Board of Education Monday evening. The total budget is $24.9 million, or 5.2%, larger than the $478.2 million budget the school board adopted last June for the current fiscal year.

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More than 100 teaching and school administrative positions were cut ahead of the current school year as HCPS leaders worked to balance their fiscal 2020 budget.

The request for more positions comes as the Harford County schools see their largest increase in student enrollment, more than 600, in many years. The number of students who need special education services or speak English as a second language is increasing, too, according to school system officials.

There are 38,445 students in Harford County Public Schools, as of the Sept. 30 enrollment report for the current school year. Bulson noted enrollment has grown by about 1,000 over the past three years, while the school system has 480 fewer positions now than it did in fiscal 2011.

The total number of positions has decreased from 5,231 in 2011 to 4,750 in 2020, according to HCPS data.

The superintendent said the enrollment growth “has added considerable pressure to the circumstances in our classrooms, most notably with class sizes, when you compound the fact that we also eliminated many teaching positions last year.”

Officials want to create or restore 124.2 total positions — 8.9 of those are funded by grants rather than operating revenues, so they are in the restricted part of the school system’s budget. Those positions would be moved to the unrestricted operating budget, resulting in a net increase of 115.3 positions, Bulson explained.

“As salaries increase and the cost of benefits increase, our grants — which are the restricted parts of the budget — our grants can only afford what they can afford,” the superintendent said.

Bulson discussed how more students need special education services. He noted that, “on average,” it costs about three times as much to educate special education students compared to general education students. Additional resources also are needed to support English-language leaders, Bulson said.

“We’re at our highest level ever, with regard to English-language learners,” Bulson said.

In addition to the $22.4 million more in local funding, Bulson and his staff anticipate needing $5.25 million more in state funding — a 2.5% increase from $211.7 million this year to $216.9 million next year.

The request for state funding could change, however, once HCPS officials get more information on state revenue and budget figures, Bulson noted. The Maryland General Assembly started its 2020 session last week, and Gov. Larry Hogan presented his state budget for fiscal 2021 on Tuesday.

Federal funding for the Harford schools is expected to remain the same at $420,000 next year, and funding from “other” sources is slated to increase slightly by $255,040, from $4.59 million to $4.85 million, according to budget data.

Finally, school officials plan to allocate $2 million from the operating budget fund balance, or cash reserves, next year. All together, the local and state requests, plus the fund balance transfer and slight bump in “other” funding sources, results in a nearly $25 million proposed increase in next year’s budget, according to Bulson.

‘Mandatory baseline’

The superintendent divided the funding increase into two segments. The first, titled “Mandatory Baseline Budget Increases,” covers $17.7 million in funding and 40 positions.

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The mandatory increases cover additional revenue for special education and education services, with 14 and 22 additional positions, respectively, as well as safety, four positions in transportation, insurance and other fixed expenses for employee benefits and employee salary and wages. The $9.7 million requested for salaries and wages is the largest part of the mandatory baseline increases.

Officials consider those baseline costs “really the mandatory budget increases to address” so HCPS can “at least continue service at similar levels as we have this year,” Bulson said.

The second part of the overall funding increase covers restoring positions and enhancing support for students and staff — $7.1 million is requested, covering 84.2 positions, according to the superintendent’s presentation.

“These positions we’re putting back are entirely about support,” said Bulson, who emphasized that no new positions for the central office administration are proposed.

The majority of the additional positions, 91.2, are categorized as teachers, counselors and mental health professionals, followed by 17 paraprofessionals, eight administrative or supervisory positions and eight in the “technical/other” category.

“This budget is about support for the classroom and growing capacity,” he said.

The superintendent also noted that HCPS officials are pursuing growth in the area of mental health services for students.

Harford County Executive Barry Glassman allocated $256.46 million for HCPS in his fiscal 2020 county budget, an increase of nearly $10.7 million from the previous year. School system officials are seeking $278.89 million, an 8.7% increase, in local funds for next year.

Glassman has increased county funding to schools each year for the past five years, in large part to support contractually obligated salary step increases for teachers.

Bulson, who is in his second year as HCPS superintendent, sought an increase of about $10 million in local funding as he presented his first budget in 2019. The school board increased the request to $15 million in new county funds, and many people, including students, parents, teachers, administrators and school board members, exhorted the County Council to fully fund the $15 million ask.

The council approved a $903.6 million total county budget last spring that included the $10.7 million increase in school funding put forth by the county executive.

The school system announced that more than 150 positions, many of them teaching or other classroom-related positions, would need to be cut to balance the 2020 budget when Bulson presented his proposal. Officials ultimately eliminated 109.3 positions ahead of the current school year.

Bulson said Monday that Harford County ranks 24th our of 24 jurisdictions in Maryland — last — in overall per-pupil funding for public schools, a fact many people emphasized last spring as they testified before the County Council.

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Harford receives $13,776 per pupil while the highest-ranked jurisdiction, Worcester County on the Eastern Shore, receives $18,472, according to Bulson’s presentation. Harford County ranks 18th in Maryland for federal funding and 16th in state funding, although local poverty and need are key factors in how federal and state funding is disbursed, Bulson stressed.

HCPS ranks 13th in the state for local funding, while Harford County is the 11th wealthiest jurisdiction in Maryland, Bulson noted.

Harford students are “outperforming the state” in terms of test scores, ranking eighth for third-grade reading and fifth-grade math, meaning the money currently spent on education “is well invested, and the return on investment is very clear,” Bulson said.

School board members did not make any comments following Bulson’s presentation — they were not scheduled to vote on the request Monday. The board must adopt its formal budget request and send it to the county executive’s office before March 1. The school board is scheduled to meet three times before that deadline — Jan. 27, Feb. 10 and Feb. 24.

Bulson encouraged them to take the next month, review his proposal and seek feedback from the community.

The superintendent noted there has been greater collaboration, especially in operational areas such as transportation and maintenance, between school system and county leaders and staff, and he lauded the county government and County Council for their support.

“I believe we should all be engaged in what the right dialogue should be, on behalf of our students,” he said.

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