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Harford school officials prepare to 'make do' with less funding than requested for fiscal 2018

Joseph Licata, left, chief of administration for Harford County Public Schools, speaks during a County Council work session Monday on the HCPS fiscal 2018 budget. With him are HCPS Superintendent Barbara Canavan, center, and Deborah Judd, assistant superintendent for business services.
Joseph Licata, left, chief of administration for Harford County Public Schools, speaks during a County Council work session Monday on the HCPS fiscal 2018 budget. With him are HCPS Superintendent Barbara Canavan, center, and Deborah Judd, assistant superintendent for business services. (David Anderson/Baltimore Sun Media Group)

A lack of resources for up-to-date classroom technology took center stage Monday — which has happened during budget deliberations in prior years — at a Harford County Council work session on Harford County Public Schools' fiscal 2018 budget.

"It seems to be kind of a recurring topic each year," Councilman Jim McMahan remarked.

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For the full school system budget next year, the Board of Education requested $251.6 million from the county, which is $18.1 million more than the $233.5 million the county allocated for this year.

County Executive Barry Glassman provided $238.7 million for the operating budget, about $5.2 million more than the county provided for this year; $5 million of that is going to instructional salary increases.

The council could increase the county allocation up to the original $251.6 million requested; however, it would have to find revenue to fund the almost $13 million elsewhere in the budget, either through reductions or tax increases.

There was no talk of any additional funding during the nearly two-hour review session Monday, however, which in addition to technology, also focused on the need to replace artificial turf fields at several high schools and how the school system is allocating its fund balances of money not spent in prior budgets.

The School Board approved a $456.06 million total operating budget request for next year, an overall increase of $17.1 million, all of which was to come from the county.

Technology

Glassman allocated $1 million in next year's capital budget for technology infrastructure improvements.

Andrew Moore, director of technology for HCPS, expressed appreciation for the funding, but he outlined the recurring need to upgrade devices such as computers, network infrastructure, even telephone systems that are nearly 20 years old.

"We will make do with that as we can," Moore said of the allocation.

Up-to-date technology is needed for daily classroom instruction as well as standardized testing. Public school students across Maryland must take the annual PARCC exams online by 2018.

About 43 percent of the students in HCPS, which has about 37,500 students, are currently taking PARCC online, Supervisor of Accountability Phillip Snyder told council members.

"As each year rolls past, if we don't stay current, we're just getting further and further behind," Moore said.

Making do with what they get has become an annual ritual for school system officials.

Teachers contract

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The school system is in the midst of a three-year deal with the teachers' union to provide eligible members with two salary steps worth a combined 6 percent and a 2 percent cost-of-living adjustment.

The 8 percent increase is designed to help Harford County teachers catch up after years of salary freezes that have left them lagging behind their colleagues in other Maryland school districts, according to school officials and the union that represents the teachers.

The additional money from the county, as compared to last year's allocation, would go toward honoring that contract, Joe Licata, chief of administration for HCPS, said after the work session. That is how Glassman set the additional county funding – in the instructional salaries category, where the money can't be moved from unless county officials approved any such transfer.

"Now we'll look at how [to reconcile] the difference between what we requested and what we got," he said.

Licata noted school officials will make those decisions after the County Council gets done with the overall county budget. The council has the power to add money to select agencies' allocations, although the money must be moved from other parts of the budget.

The primary concerns of council members, as well as the citizen Budget Advisory Board, included the state of the school system's operating fund balance, or cash reserves, since officials have been using a portion of those reserves to balance the operating budget each year for the past six to seven years.

Other concerns were paying down money owed for OPEB, or the Other-Post Employment Benefits available to school system retirees, so-called "pay-to-play" fees for sports participation, bus routes and the replacement of artificial turf athletic fields.

High school fields

Glassman is funding the replacement of North Harford High School's artificial turf field, which was installed about 10 years ago. It was the first artificial athletic field installed at Harford County's 10 high schools, and it is one of many that are operated and maintained by the school system and the Harford County Department of Parks and Recreation.

Licata told council members the fields each have a lifespan of 10 to 12 years, and they need a regular replacement schedule like any other facility, such as a roof.

"We have better types of fields and hopefully fields that will last a little bit longer as we go through this [replacement program]," Council President Richard Slutzky said.

He stressed the fields support school curriculum goals, as they can be used for physical education classes as well as high school sports, and they are much more durable when it comes to the weather, compared to a natural grass field.

Slutzky, a former HCPS teacher and coach, recalled a time when students could not use a grass field for PE after it rained, but that is not the case with an artificial turf field.

"Now, we can have classes all day long," he said.



Harford County’s “Choose Civility” campaign kicked off with a breakfast event at the Water’s Edge Events Center in Belcamp on Wednesday.
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