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Drama fee nixed, swimming and Harford Glen funding restored in Harford school budget request

Months of pleas by the public to the Harford County Board of Education to rescind a drama participation fee, restore funding for the high school swimming program, for pool maintenance and for overnight visits to the Harford Glen Environmental Education Center were answered Monday night.

The school board unanimously approved an operating budget that calls for a more than $17 million increase in spending, changes the superintendent's spending plan and grants the funding requests the public has been seeking at recent public meetings.

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The board amended the fiscal 2018 operating request, from the $455.2 million recommended by Superintendent Barbara Canavan, to $456.06 million. The $50,000 in projected revenue from the $100 drama fee was removed, a $547,296 expenditure was added for the pools and the swim program and a $271,453 expenditure for Harford Glen, based on respective motions from board member Laura Runyeon, Vice President Joseph Voskuhl and member Joseph Hau.

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.

Canavan's budget proposal included the drama fee revenue and the proposed cuts from swimming and Harford Glen. Canavan's request was $16.3 million higher than the budget approved for the current year, in order to fund employee salary increases that are the result of negotiations between the school board and its employee unions, plus rising health insurance costs.

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The largest portion of the increase would be covered by the county, which already provides more than half of the school system's funding. The rest of the operating revenues are covered by the state, federal government, operating fund balance and miscellaneous sources.

A $100 fee to participate in interscholastic high school sports, however, remains in the budget. Runyeon noted drama productions are "virtually self funded," based on public comments from advocates for the program.

She, along with Voskuhl, warned that the board could revisit activity fees in the future.

"It needs to be done fairly," Runyeon said. "It needs to reflect the cost of the program that it is associated with, and it should not target a single club, in my opinion."

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There have been protests in front of the A.A. Roberty Building, the school system's headquarters in Bel Air, and hours of public comments since last June, when the school board proposed closing three aging HCPS pools and instituted the drama fee.

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.

Comments about swimming, drama and Harford Glen have dominated the public comments during four public input sessions hosted by the board this month.

Most of the 36 people who spoke during the public comment of Monday's school board meeting focused on ensuring full funding for teacher salary steps, or contractually-obligated annual salary increases, so teachers will remain with Harford County Public Schools and not depart for neighboring school systems that offer higher salaries.

Teachers wore orange ribbons on their lapels, and they stood as a group when any of their colleagues were speaking. They, along with parents who spoke in support of the teachers, used words such as "crisis" and "hemorrhaging" to describe the situation.

"High-quality teachers will remain as long as they feel valued," Robert Scott, who teaches math and computer science at Havre de Grace High School, said. "Make Harford County teachers feel valued."

Canavan's budget request for next year covers the second year of a three-year agreement between the board and the teachers' union, the Harford County Education Association.

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.

The amended operating budget, along with a $30.4 million restricted budget and $17.1 million food service budget requests approved Monday, will be forwarded to Harford County Executive Barry Glassman. The school board must reconcile its request with the funding provided by the state and county, amounts which will not be certain until April when the Maryland General Assembly session ends and Glassman forwards the total county budget to the Harford County Council.

The school board typically votes on the final budget for the next fiscal year in June.

"We are going to have to make some difficult decisions," board President Nancy Reynolds said. "There is a certain pot of money and a lot of wants, and even deeper than that, there's a lot of needs in this system."

Voskuhl urged people in the audience to keep up their passion and support for their causes when the County Council reviews the budget during the spring.

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.

"The passion you people have shown in the past few weeks, I hope you show that passion as the County Council gets into their budget sessions because we are faced with a crisis," he said.

Board members postponed voting on the capital budget request for next year, which stands at $85.9 million, to give themselves more time to review a report on the extensive repairs needed for the pool at North Harford Middle School, a report prepared by SEI Architects, of Rockville, for the school system.

Board member Al Williamson noted he recently received a copy of the report from school system officials at his request, but his board colleagues have not seen it yet.

The estimated cost of the repairs would be about $715,000, which would cover immediate repairs to the leaking main drain line and other recommended fixes to pipes, the filtration system, decking and water treatment equipment, Cornell Brown, assistant superintendent for operations, said.

Harford County Public Schools Superintendent Barbara Canavan has submitted a $455.2 million proposed operating budget for fiscal 2018, a $16.3 million increase that once again depends on more county government financial support.

"The recommendation is to go forward with a full project ... so that we can do it right and then move forward with making improvements to the other pools," he said.

School officials said it will take a similar amount to repair the pool at Edgewood Middle School, and about $500,000 to $600,000 to repair the Magnolia Middle School pool.

The school board will review the capital budget during its Feb. 13 meeting. The board has until the end of February to send all of its budget requests to the county government.

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