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Time to finally get serious about the Harford school budget [Editorial]

The Harford County Board of Education is to be commended for overruling Barbara Canavan, superintendent of schools, and approving funds for programs she proposed cutting.

The school board approved an amended budget that will rescind a drama participation fee, keep the high school swimming program, fund maintenance of the school system's three pools and continue the overnight environmental education program at Harford Glen.

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It's refreshing to see the school board fulfilling its role of providing direction and leadership for Harford County Public Schools. Historically, school board members have acted as if the superintendent is their boss, instead of the other way around. As we have noted repeatedly over the years in this space, the school board is the ultimate authority, not the superintendent.

Months of pleas by members of the public to the Harford County Board of Education to rescind a drama participation fee and restore funding for the high school swimming program and pool maintenance, as well as overnight visits to the Harford Glen Environmental Education Center, paid off Monday when the board members unanimously approved an operating budget request that meets all three of those goals.

Far too often, the school board has been too timid and allowed this, and most other, superintendents to do things as they saw fit.

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That changed, somewhat, a year ago when this board also overruled Canavan's budget and restored funding for the swimming program and overnight visits to Harford Glen. Instead of getting the message and figuring out a budget that kept swimming and Harford Glen intact, Canavan and her administration returned again this year with the same proposed cuts.

Particularly disturbing is that overnight visits for students to the Harford Glen nature center have not been restored, even though funding was included in the current budget.

The Harford County Board of Education faced a packed house and more pleas for swimming, drama and Harford Glen during its fourth and final public input session on the fiscal 2018 budget. Possible savings also were discussed, such as putting high and middle school students on the same buses.

There are reasons for that, obviously, including the need for renovations and other improvements that came to light in the aftermath of the discovery of a bedbug at the facility. The real reason they haven't returned is the superintendent doesn't want them.

She asked a year ago that they be eliminated. The board changed plans last spring and put the money back in the budget. Still, nothing happened. Canavan claimed there were too many expensive costs to bring Harford Glen up to standard, though she never publicly produced any estimates of the scope or cost of that work.

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Here it is as year later and she asked for the same thing the board denied her a year ago.

With one last public input session on the Harford County Public Schools superintendent's proposed budget for the next school year scheduled for Thursday night, many of the same subjects debated at three earlier sessions are again expected to be front and center.

All of those who came to public hearings, sent comments, wrote letters or otherwise spoke up, this year or last, should be proud of what they accomplished. Their views were not only heard, but also they effectively moved those in charge – the Harford County Board of Education – to act in their best interests.

What is most annoying about these budget machinations is what little effect the threatened programs have on the school system's budget. The expenses the school board added to the budget increased Canavan's proposal from $455.2 million to $456.06 million. That's $860,000 in additional costs and amounts to less than two-tenths of 1 percent of the original budget proposal.

Harford County school board members were suggesting any method they could think of Monday to raise money to keep the public school system's three pools open and preserve the interscholastic swimming program.

Let's be clear: we believe that $860,000 is a huge amount of money and any business or government body that can save that much should be applauded.

The difficulty is the school system has real financial issues it has to address. Those problems are rooted in ever-increasing costs for enrollment that, at best, has remained unchanged and, at worst, has declined.

The contested cuts that were proposed, and rejected, wouldn't begin to fix the problems. That is putting a proverbial Band Aid on a bullet wound.

Harford County Public Schools has to start considering big, dramatic measures. Facing similar issues, some jurisdictions have closed schools. Others have cut staff.

Advocates for Harford County Public Schools swimming programs were out in force Wednesday evening to decry potential budget cuts that they believe will kill both instructional programs and high school interscholastic competition.

What is best for the future of Harford County Public Schools has yet to be decided. Unfortunately, what's best for the future of Harford County Public Schools also hasn't even been discussed.

What's clear is there's no way cutting swimming and Harford Glen overnight trips and charging $100 for a student to participate in extracurricular drama production will ever solve the problems.

So, it's time for the superintendent and her administration to lay off of Harford Glen, swimming and drama students and get down to the serious matter of fixing the school system's long-term budget problems.

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