Despite pleas from hundreds of people over the last several weeks, the Harford County Council on Tuesday approved a $903.6 million county budget for the next fiscal year without any additional money for education beyond what the county executive proposed.
The total package for fiscal year 2020, including a nearly $747.7 million operating budget and $155.9 million capital budget, is $1.7 million more than the $901.8 million county budget adopted for the current fiscal year and does not include a tax rate increase.
The budget includes $256.4 million for the public schools, a $10.7 million increase over this fiscal year. The school board and dozens of parents, teachers and others in the school system repeatedly asked the council to “Fund 15,” the full request from the board of education.
The schools will also receive $207.4 million from the state, more than $5 million above than it was expecting, and $8.7 million to fund Kirwan Commission objectives.
With the funding it will receive, the school system will have to cut 84.5 teaching positions, fewer than the 153.5 proposed to be cut under Superintendent Sean Bulson’s initial budget proposal.
Councilmen Andre Johnson and Robert Wagner both voted against the budget, saying they couldn’t vote for it “in good conscience.” The remaining council members voted for the budget.
“We’ve heard from hundreds of people. Hundreds have marched on the council in the last several months,” Johnson said, explaining his vote. “I’m truly disappointed in not only us on the council, but in the executive that we would not find the money necessary to fully fund the school budget.”
Johnson said he’s been proud to be a resident of Harford County, where his children go to school, but he’s embarrassed that Harford’s per pupil spending rate is lowest in Maryland and its class sizes are the largest.
“Larger class sizes mean students are going to have poorer test results and things like that. I really do believe that our kids, not only our community or our county, but our kids are going to suffer for this,” Johnson said. “With that being said, I couldn’t in good conscience vote for the budget.”
Wagner said the council looked at the budget as closely as it could, but it’s a more complicated document than it was years ago.
“I think there’s still money left in that budget the council was unable to find even after looking at it and scrutinizing it the best we could and trying to find what was there,” Wagner said.
The $10.7 million increase in county education funding “makes our children’s education a priority in Harford County,” Council President Patrick Vincenti said. With the extra state money and the Kirwan funding, Harford schools are getting even more than anticipated.
Future funding of Kirwan may fall to the responsibility of local jurisdictions, and while other counties in Maryland — Baltimore, Anne Arundel and Howard — “have all budgeted this year for major tax increases,” they may have to be adjusted again if the state ceases Kirwan funding, he said.
“We truly appreciate everyone’s input over the past three months,” Vincenti said. “We hear you, we understand you. The county executive is proposing a tight budget that affects everyone in a positive way.”
Councilman Joe Woods said this was one of the most challenging budgets he’s worked on and as a group they looked at a number of possibilities to provide more funding for education. But they just couldn’t make it work, he said.
Councilman Curtis Beulah said he was proud of his council colleagues.
“I know beyond a shadow of a doubt, myself included, every single one of them wants to provide the best quality education for each and every student here,” Beulah said. “And I know we looked hard and we tried to find where we could cut the money. But this budget wasn’t cut down to the bone, it was cut into the bone.”
This budget is a turning point, he said, and recommended that everyone come together — parents, teachers, the school board, the county executive and council.
“Obviously we have a problem here, and I’m sick and tired of playing the blame game,” Beulah said. “We need to find solutions to fund our education system here in Harford County to provide a quality education to each and every student here, to each and every child in this county. They deserve to have access to a quality education.”