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Harford schools need to take serious look at spending [Editorial]

Actions speak louder than words.

It's a truism that sometimes seems to get lost in the cacophony of this time, sometimes referred to as the information age.

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It's an open question as to how much of what comes across on cell phones, email, social media, cable TV, broadcast radio and satellite radio is information based on action and how much is just words.

One way to evaluate what's presented is to consider the cost. It is one thing to, as the expression goes, talk a good game. It's another to consistently lead a team to victory.

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Such is the case with the leadership of Harford County Public Schools when it comes to financial management.

In the spending year that begins July 1, Superintendent Barbara Canavan is proposing to spend $450.9 million to run the Harford public school system. This figure represents an increase of $24 million over what was approved to run the school system in the current fiscal year. In addition, it would require the Harford County government to increase its portion of the school system's budget by $26 million compared to the current year because the state government is expected to cut its allocation by $2 million.

In a recent presentation to the Harford County Board of Education reported in this newspaper, Canavan said the school system is taking many measures in an effort to be more frugal.

Efforts include composting food waste in cafeteria kitchens as a way of reducing waste removal costs, exploring the possibility of using alternative fuels to heat school buildings, figuring out ways to spend less on cleaning supplies and working with BGE to figure out ways to cut utility costs.

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They're all good ideas, and they're all worth exploring, though some of the proposals are more firmly grounded than others. Composting to cut cafeteria costs isn't likely to save a lot of money (though every little bit helps), but devising ways to spend less on gas and electricity is something that has the potential to generate more substantial savings.

All in all, however, none of the proposals is likely to add up to the $26 million increase being sought.

In a certain way, the talk of composting and turning off the lights in unused classrooms is something akin to what the school system did the past two budget cycles when participation – or pay-to-play – fees were levied against students involved with extracurricular activities. It sounded good, but the anticipated revenues were in the six figure range, while the funding gap they needed to close was in the eight figure range.

In other words, the idea of knocking down costs bit by bit here and there sounds good, but there's a good chance it won't close a $26 million difference in what is sought and what is likely to be allocated.

Make no mistake. The school system is facing financial difficulties not all of its making. In recent years, the Maryland state government has been shifting the costs of teacher pensions to the counties, costs the state once covered in full. It's a big deal because the counties - Harford included - are seeing increased costs as a result, even as other state allocations are flat, reduced or not increasing as they may have in past years.

One way or another, taxpayers in Harford County are going to end up paying for the shift in teacher pension costs to the county. Then again, had the state not shifted those costs, the same taxpayers would be responsible for paying them; it's just that their money would be going to the state, not the county.

The financing gap for Harford County Public Schools is also compounded by decreasing enrollment. Whereas 15 years ago, enrollment was at or very near 40,000 students, it has slowly, but steadily decreased to an estimated 37,441 as of this past fall. That's a difference of 2,559. For purposes of comparison, C. Milton Wright High School has the largest student body in the county at just shy of 1,600.

Decreased enrollment means decreased state allocations (as state allocations are based largely on enrollment). Decreased enrollment also means an increased perception that costs should decrease as well. Certainly, the staffing to student ratio should be adjusted to save money, but a school operating at 80 percent capacity doesn't cost 20 percent less to heat, light or maintain.

The school system's projections, based on birth rates and local development and home building activity, suggest the declining enrollment trend will continue. Assuming it does, school officials will need to look at more than composting, using cheaper detergent and turning out the lights to deal with their increased operating expenses.

Real action in this situation means considering things such as mothballing school buildings until, and if, enrollment begins climbing again, as well as evaluating the role of people in non-instructional roles and their relevance to the process of educating our children.

These are big ticket items, and discussions relating to big ticket items are likely to be heated. It's one thing if a school in some place across the county from you is slated for closing; it's quite another if that school is in your neighborhood.

Until such discussions are begun, however, Harford County will continue paying for a school system designed for 40,000-plus students and growing rather than one that's serving 37,400 students and shrinking.

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