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Harford school board exposes wider divide, sets budget parameters

Harford School Superintendent Barbara Canavan, left, congratulates new school board members, from left, Rachel Gauthier, Jansen Robinson Laura Runyeon, Joe Voshkuhl and Al Williamson during their 2015 swearing-in ceremony. A rift has developed among board members over the budget.
Harford School Superintendent Barbara Canavan, left, congratulates new school board members, from left, Rachel Gauthier, Jansen Robinson Laura Runyeon, Joe Voshkuhl and Al Williamson during their 2015 swearing-in ceremony. A rift has developed among board members over the budget. (MATT BUTTON/THE AEGIS)

Barbara Canavan, superintendent of Harford County Public Schools, has received a set of broad guidelines from the Board of Education as she develops her budget for the 2018-19 fiscal year.

It took nearly two hours of intense debate, however, among board members during a recent meeting, as well as prior discussions in October, to finally get there.

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“The public needs to know where you stand, and this is the time,” board member Robert Frisch told his colleagues during the Nov. 6 board meeting.

The debate, at times, reflected an ideological division that has been forming over how active the board should be in its oversight of a school system that serves more than 37,000 students and has an annual budget of about half a billion dollars.

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It also comes at a time when Canavan’s own future running the school system is in question. The superintendent is in the final year of a four-year contract and has until February, as provided by state law, to inform the board if she wants to be considered for reappointment.

Last spring, the school board approved a $446 million operating budget for the current fiscal year, but each year of Canavan’s superintendency the interplay between her and some board members has become more and more contentious. The budget the board and superintendent have begun working on now will cover the 2018-19 fiscal year, beginning next July 1, which coincides with when Canavan’s current contract is due to expire.

“I think the newer way of the board leading the discussion on priorities is the way to go for the best interest of the students and staff of HCPS,” board student representative Matt Resnik said during the most recent discussion about whether the board or superintendent should set broad budget priorities.

The board approved four priorities, out of five set forth in a motion by member Joseph Hau.

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Hau’s priorities, which he described as “general guidance for the budget parameters,” included a baseline funding commitment, known as “maintenance of effort,” a requirement that Canavan’s budget cover “cost of doing business increases” for school system operations, funding all negotiated labor agreements, funding of all “essential classroom resources” and a list from the superintendent of “any other optional items necessary to keep our system healthy, competitive and high achieving.”

“I think that the parameters need to be as broad as I have dictated them because otherwise we enter into the operational parameters of the school system, which is the purview of the superintendent,” Hau said.

Patrick Spicer, general counsel for the school system, told the board it would be “inappropriate and illegal” and “usurpation of the superintendent’s authority” for the board to make any motions regarding requests for specific amounts of money.

Spicer cited Section 4-205(k) of the Maryland Education Article giving local superintendents the authority to “take the initiative in the preparation and presentation of the annual school budget” and “seek in every way to secure adequate funds from local authorities for the support and development of the public schools in the county.”

He said it would be appropriate, however, for the board to set, for example, school security as a priority.

Board member Alfred Williamson disagreed with Spicer’s interpretation of state law. He cited Section 5-101 of the Education Article, which he interprets as giving school boards oversight of the budget process.

“Yes, [the superintendent] takes the lead in preparing it, but she prepares it according to the discretion of the board,” Williamson said.

Williamson said he only supports the recommendation for keeping maintenance of effort. He argued that the board should direct the superintendent to curtail her budget request so it reflects what the county has allocated in prior years.

“We’re adding on things that are going to push it right back up to a level that some of us think is unacceptable to present to the board so I’m against all of these amendments,” Williamson said.

Canavan said she thinks board members will be “pleasantly surprised” when she presents the budget Dec. 18. She and her top aides have been working since July, with input from multiple sources, including board members, to craft next year’s budget, she said.

“I’m going to present an instructionally sound budget that provides for a safe, secure and embracing atmosphere for children and employees,” she said.

Although Canavan will submit her budget next month and the board will hold public input sessions in January, final numbers on funding from the county and state will not be known until the spring after the Maryland General Assembly and Harford County Council approve their respective budgets.

It has long been a criticism of Harford’s school board members that the timing of the school budget and its dependence on final funding decisions from county and state officials puts the school system leaders in an untenable position.

The recommendation on maintenance of effort, which refers to a state-mandated requirement that counties maintain a level of funding from year to year, passed unanimously at the Nov. 6 meeting.

The cost-of-doing business recommendation passed 6-3 with negative votes from Williamson, Frisch and member Jansen Robinson. Resnik voted "no,” too, but his vote as student representative did not count toward the motion.

The recommendation to fund “all essential classroom resources” passed 7-2; Frisch and Williamson voted against it, and Resnik cast a preferential vote against.

That recommendation was amended with a provision that “the board recommends a budget that does not reduce staffing that will increase classroom sizes,” reflecting Frisch and Robinson's concerns about whether employees such as classroom teachers should be included among essential classroom resources.

“How many times has the public said they don’t want classroom sizes to increase?” Robinson asked.

He made an amendment to the recommendation that it state there should be no reduction in staffing that would increase class sizes.

Spicer said the amendment was “out of order,” as it “impinges on the superintendent’s authority to prepare the budget, with a specific directive.”

Robinson changed the wording to “we recommend that the budget reflects no reduction in staffing that would increase classroom sizes.”

Spicer gave his blessing, and the amended motion passed, 7-2. Williamson and Frisch voted against it, along with Resnik.

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The final recommendation, a list of any other optional items needed to support the school system, passed 5-4. Members Nancy Reynolds, Hau and Thomas Fitzpatrick, plus President Joseph Voskuhl and Vice President Laura Runyeon, voted fot it. Members Rachel Gauthier, Williamson, Robinson and Frisch voted against it — Resnik also voted in the negative.

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The board voted 5-4 to remove the recommendation to fund negotiated labor agreements, after Spicer advised them that the funding would already be in the budget since the board has ratified its labor agreements.

Spicer said the board should not take the risk of a negative vote, which with a slim majority of members agreed.

"The board could undo something it’s already done and then place itself in a position to have bargained in bad faith,” Runyeon said.

She, along with Reynolds, Williamson, Fitzpatrick and Voskuhl, voted to remove the recommendation from consideration. Hau, Gauthier, Robinson and Frisch voted to keep it in, along with Resnik.

Cindy Mumby, spokesperson for the county government, said Harford County Executive Barry Glassman will make his final budget decisions next March, after he receives solid information on county property tax revenue and income tax revenue; income tax is distributed by the state.

She said Glassman has directed a portion of annual school funding to help restore lagging teacher salaries — the county allocated $233.5 million to HCPS for fiscal 2018, $5 million of which was earmarked for instructional salaries — “and the county executive expects that to continue.”

“As [the school board] is looking to balance their budget, the county executive has encouraged them to find efficiencies within their own budget to fund their priorities, just as the county executive has done within the county budget, and that’s an ongoing effort in county government to identify efficiencies and cost savings,” Mumby said Sunday.

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