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'Education, education, education' should be priority in next year's Harford County budget, residents say

Kathryn Koerber is an “almost dropout,” but continues to attend North Harford High School for its drama and art program.

Christine Kim is worried that AP classes will be eliminated because of teacher cuts, and that she won’t be ready for college.

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Ben White is afraid Harford’s school system will no longer be able to attract good teachers.

They were among the 21 people who offered comments in person on Harford County’s budget for Fiscal Year 2020, which begins July 1, during County Executive Barry Glassman’s hearing Thursday night at Harford Community College. About a dozen others submitted comments online or via Twitter and Facebook.

Glassman and his staff are in the early stages of putting together next year’s budget, collecting requests from different agencies that receive county funding, including Harford County Public Schools, Harford County Public Library, and Harford County Sheriff’s Office, among others.

He will submit his budget proposal in the first week of April to the Harford County Council, which must approved a spending plan by June 30, though the council often aims to have it complete by the end of May.

While some comments Thursday were directed to supporting the public library system and Harford Community College, most of those made to Glassman came from parents, students and school system staff, imploring the county executive to fully fund, or more, the school system’s budget. Superintendent Sean Bulson submitted the $467.7 million operating budget to the Harford Board of Education Tuesday.

The school board is beginning its review of the superintendent’s budget proposal and will hold a public hearing Feb. 4 from 6:30 to 8 p.m. in the A.A. Roberty building in Bel Air. The school system’s budget must be submitted to the county executive by March 1.

Bulson’s proposal seeks $10 million more than this year from the county. It also includes cutting 153 instructional and 26 administrative positions as a means to close a $35 million budget gap. He also proposes a one-step salary increase and a 1 percent cost-of-living raise.

“As a taxpayer, father and husband, I wholeheartedly stress the priority in next year’s budget needs to be education, education, education,” Paul DeMennato of Bel Air told Glassman.

DeMennato said he intends to be a frequent advocate at various levels and proposed the school board not approve the superintendent’s budget proposal. He also suggested a task force with an outside educational consultant to look at all the issues.

“I advocate for not aggressively attacking the $35 million projected shortfall by performing drastic cuts in staffing and redeploying to just put us further behind,” he said. “It will take a partnership arrangement with the school system and creative approaches to maintain our current baseline until a study is complete. Failure to plan is planning to fail, plain and simple.”

Ben White of Bel Air said Glassman is in the “unenviable position of inheriting a mess not of your own making.”

In the last seven years, when Harford teachers didn’t get raises, the school system’s reputation “took an enormous hit,” White said.

One of his daughter’s classes at C. Milton Wright was taught an entire year by a long-term sub because a teacher couldn’t be found. The same happened twice in the last three years at Aberdeen Middle, he said, because no teacher was willing to go there.

“That is going to be nothing in comparison to what is going to come if these cuts go. We’ll lose qualified people and will no longer be able to attract anybody new,” White said.

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There’s a fourth-year teacher next to White’s classroom: “He has outstanding energy, wonderful enthusiasm and the kids love him. We’re going to lose him. That’s the kind of person we cannot afford to lose.”

Anna Jones, a sophomore at Havre de Grace High School, said cutting teachers will greatly limit education for Harford students. Class sizes will increase, which will take away learning opportunities from students when they can’t ask a question or get a problem solved.

Electives are often the first to go, she said.

“Even if they are not graduation requirements, they are important to kids and are often the only reason why many kids even bother to go to school,” Jones said.

Those electives can help students in their mandatory subjects, including math.

“Working together in a music class gives kids problem-solving skills needed when working in math, architecture, engineering and working with technology or computers,” she said. “Limiting electives students can take does nothing but harm kids’ overall education and limit their opportunities. Education is extremely important to me, every other student as well as the future of our society. I beg of the board to please make education to you as well when decided the budget.”

Stacy Koerber is a second-grade teacher at Abingdon Elementary and has four children in North Harford schools.

Lose classes at elementary level, then classes and workloads get bigger, but the same curriculum is offered.

It’s different at the high school level, however, where many classes disappear or teachers are pulled in to offset cuts and can’t teach the ones they normally did.

Her oldest daughter, Kathryn, is a senior who “literally did not drop out of high school” because of the school’s art and drama program, Koerber said.

“The relationship there for four years with the same teachers has had an enormous influence on all these teens,” she said. “These teachers know these kids. They spend four years building them up. They love them through the hard parts.”

Thanks to those programs, her daughter has had an internship in graphic design and has a trade job lined up next year when she graduates.

Her freshman has autism with a “huge personality,” and found his place in the drama program.

The night of his first drama program, three months into school, he said: “I finally don’t feel alone anymore.”

With the cuts proposed, her children and others won’t have those opportunities next year, when her other daughter will be a freshman.

“I’m scared to find out what opportunities will never even be part of her high school experience,” Koerber said.

“As educators every day, we’re charged with preparing our students to be college and career ready. If we’re not willing to make education funding a priority in this community, we’re not meeting the needs of our neighbors and their children.”

Christine Kim is a sophomore at Patterson Mill High School. She and her family moved here when she was a freshman because of the school system.

Now she’s afraid teacher cuts means AP classes will be eliminated, classes required by some colleges.

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“If Harford County can’t offer it, I can’t take it and I can’t get myself ready for college. I can’t get ready for things I want to do in the future,” Kim said.

Support for the library, HCC

Cecelia Herman wanted to support Harford’s libraries — all of them, but she likes Bel Air personally.

“I cannot understand how they can do so much and look so calm,” Herman said. “I feel that they’re family. I can go to them and I will recognize people and I will have all my answers and everybody is so professional. It’s just fantastic.”

Rich Norling, chairman of the HCC Board of Trustees, said the college is asking for an additional $332,000 over this year’s budget, about 1 percent. In preparing the budget, staff looked at what to cut and things not working and cut several hundred thousand dollars before they really started working on it.

HCC is also seeking design money for the renovation of the Chesapeake Center, a building that dates to 1968, he said.

“It needs some major repairs, and this is an opportunity to turn it into a welcome center for students,” Norling said.

He also told Glassman that HCC President Dianna Phillips has been working with Bulson to see if there are ways HCC can help the school system ease the finances and operations of HCPS.

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