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Harford school board reduces next year’s operating budget by $2.2 million, accounting for state funding changes

The Harford County Board of Education is requesting more than $519.5 million in operating funds for local public schools in the next fiscal year — a reduction of nearly $2.2 million from what Superintendent Sean Bulson and his administration proposed — after HCPS officials learned more about the status of their state funding.

The superintendent’s initial budget proposal was presented to the school board in January with a request for a nearly $18.4 million increase in funds from Harford County compared to the current fiscal year.

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Officials shifted nearly $2.2 million from the operating to restricted budget, which covers the decrease in state funding as well as a more than $1.5 million decrease in the amount requested from the county government. That shrinks the request for local funds, the largest portion of revenues for HCPS, from $295.3 million to $293.8 million. The latter figure is $16.8 million, or 6.1%, higher than the $276.9 million allocated for the current fiscal year.

The initial budget was created with the thought that state funding would remain flat even though enrollment has decreased this year amid the COVID-19 pandemic, and HCPS officials did not yet know what Gov. Larry Hogan would propose for K-12 education funding when they made their initial presentation Jan. 11.

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Hogan presented his proposed budget for fiscal 2022 to the Maryland General Assembly about a week and a half later. His budget includes $7.5 billion for public schools statewide and $213.7 million in “hold harmless” grants for local school districts so “every jurisdiction receives more direct aid than in FY 2021 regardless of fluctuations in enrollment,” according to the governor’s website.

Direct state funding for Harford County Public Schools is projected to decline next year, however, from $218.9 million for fiscal 2021 to $218.2 million in fiscal 2022, according to a presentation made to the county school board Feb. 8.

“The allocation from the state to Harford County was a reduction of $690,000, so we felt it was important to incorporate that into the board’s proposed budget at this time,” Deborah Judd, assistant superintendent for business services, said.

Judd stressed that HCPS officials also have been notified that they can apply to the state for additional grant funds. The funds, should they be awarded, would cover the cost of 25 new positions that would be transferred from the unrestricted operating budget to the proposed $36.8 million restricted budget, which is supported by state and federal grant money.

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The initial operating budget called for 93.6 new positions, including 15 transferred from the restricted fund to keep up with increased salary and benefit costs not covered by grants. School system officials want to hire more staff to support the growing use of special education programs such as STRIVE, the Classroom Support Program and Future Links, as well as expanding pre-kindergarten programs.

Bulson also is seeking to hire staffers as remediation teachers and instructional coaches to support students who have struggled academically while learning online this year.

Six instructional coach positions, eight elementary remediation teachers, eight secondary remediation teachers, as well as three English Language Learner teachers, are slated to go to the restricted budget under the revised operating proposal. Officials also shifted $165,350 allocated for internet hot spots to the restricted fund.

“We’re not eliminating positions,” Judd told board members. “We’re simply moving them to restricted funds because we have been notified we are eligible for the [grant] funds.”

Federal funding is expected to remain flat at $420,000; revenues in the category known as “other” are slated to decrease by $989,500, from $5.1 million this year to $4.11 million next year as nearly $1 million goes to the school system’s fund balance, or cash reserves. The fund balance is projected to be $2.98 million in fiscal 2022, a nearly 50% increase from $2 million in fiscal 2021.

Board member David Bauer asked Judd if she believes “there is a high probability” that the 25 positions shifted from the operating to restricted budget can be covered with grant funds. Judd confirmed that she does, and said the additional positions will be included in HCPS’ grant application to the state.

“At this time, there’s no indication of any concern that we would not be eligible for those funds,” she said.

While the board did receive a revised operating budget Feb. 8 — to reflect the new information on state funding and shift of positions to the restricted budget — the previously submitted figure of $36.8 million for the restricted fund was not revised.

“There’s still so much unknown, related to our restricted funds for FY22, that we’re proposing to have the board vote on the superintendent’s original restricted budget,” said Judd, who noted that a revised restricted budget will be presented to the board in June when it typically votes on the final versions of its budgets.

The board voted unanimously in favor of the revised $519.5 million operating budget, the $36.8 million restricted budget, the $18.6 million food service budget and the $67.7 million capital budget requests, for submission to the local and state governments. The school board will, in June, reconcile its proposals with the final numbers from the county and state after their budgets are adopted in the spring.

The school board will then vote to adopt the budgets for HCPS in the 2021-22 fiscal year, which starts July 1.

The school system’s budget is typically an item of significant debate among school officials and members of the community as various constituencies seek more funding for programs, taking steps to reduce overcrowded classrooms or increasing employee salaries in accordance with contractually-obligated step increases.

The budget has been less of an issue this year as the school system and the board deals with the COVID-19 pandemic and finding ways to get students back to their classrooms safely. Elementary students are slated to go back to school two days a week March 1, followed by middle and high school students going one day a week March 15.

Board President Jansen Robinson and Vice President Rachel Gauthier praised Judd and the staff of the budget and finance office for their assistance in helping board members understand the budget process. Gauthier noted that “we genuinely appreciate everyone’s effort” and she had no questions because of staff efforts.

“For the last two years, the budget process has really been a smooth process,” Robinson said. “We didn’t have to fight over the budget the way we used to in the past, and so that’s refreshing.”

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