In looking for possible ways to save money and avoid eliminating programs such as swimming instruction, Harford County Board of Education members Thursday zeroed in on transporting all high and middle school students on the same buses.
That measure is in place for many years for North Harford Middle and North Harford High schools students and it's been done in other school systems, but the school system's transportation chief warned combining the routes will pose its own set of problems and supposedly can't be done everywhere.
During its fourth and final public input session on Superintendent Barbara Canavan's proposed $455.2 million budget for the 2017-18 school year, board members had a lengthy discussion with Charles Taibi, director of transportation, about the potential for replicating the North Harford system in other attendance areas.
Taibi said the routes could possibly be combined in the Fallston High School/Fallston Middle School attendance area only. He said there would be three fewer buses needed, with savings of $100,000 to $200,000.
The reason this would only work for the Fallston area is because there is a smaller number of buses already being shared between the two bus runs, Harford County Public Schools Manager of Communications Jillian Lader explained Friday.
The number of buses already being shared between the middle and high school is 13, according to information Taibi provided the board.
"I have to stress, it would not be without other issues that would be raised if we do this," he said.
Taibi warned that the Fallston attendance area is the second-largest in terms of land mass after North Harford, that bus drivers would have to make more stops, some runs could last longer that 45 minutes, many students would ride three to a seat, plus bus drivers could be late to pick up their elementary school charges on later runs.
School officials would then have to consider putting Fallston elementary schools on a fourth-tier schedule, which is in place for seven Harford elementary schools now. That means the school day would start between 9 and 9:15 a.m. and end at 4 p.m., according to Taibi.
"Because of the land mass, we would not be able to guarantee that every bus would be able to get to the elementary school by 3:30" to be in place for its afternoon pickup, he said.
Board members did not, however, comment or indicate if they want to make such a change.
One of the elementary schools that feeds to the Fallston secondary attendance area, Red Pump Elementary, already is on a fourth tier schedule.
"One elementary school could potentially be impacted based on the discussion held by the Board at last night's Budget Work Session," Lader wrote in an email.
Presumably, that would be Youth's Benefit Elementary, one of the largest in the system and one, because of its location, where the majority of the students ride the bus.
Thursday's session also featured 40 speakers advocating for protection of the swimming program, restoration of the Harford Glen Environmental Center overnight program for fifth-grades and elimination of the $100 drama participation fee.
As a Bel Air High School parent and an employee of the Carroll County Public Schools, Jamie Weaver has had plenty of experience with the budget issues facing both school systems.
The Bel Air resident said the Carroll County school system, where she works as a coordinator of teacher induction, has had to make drastic spending cuts to balance its budget, even closing three schools, but the local superintendent and school board have been "adamant" about preserving funds for student programs.
Weaver advocated for the swim program, noting Carroll County officials have revamped bus routes and saved more than $1 million, educated students with special needs in local school facilities that are not being used, rather than bus them to programs out of the county, and cut multiple positions.
She suggested Harford school officials consider that, rather than cutting programs or adding fees that would keep students from reaping the benefits of extracurricular and sports activities.
"You have an amazing staff," Weaver said. "They can do it."
Canavan's budget request comes with a net increase in spending to the tune of $16.3 million, compared to this year's $438.9 million budget. The superintendent is seeking additional funding, with all of the increase coming from Harford County, to cover employee salary increases and rising health insurance costs.
The board is scheduled to vote on the budget request Monday night, then send it to county and state funding authorities.
Laurie Tabor, president of the PTA for Homestead-Wakefield Elementary School in Bel Air, issued a "call to action" for students, teachers and technology.
Tabor asked board members to commit to teacher salary increases, noting they are "leaving in droves" for school systems with higher pay.
"In order to live here [in Harford], they have to be able to afford to live here and to raise their families here," she said.
Tabor said students at Homestead-Wakefield are experiencing overcrowded classrooms, plus she called for greater funding for technology improvements.
School board members have been hearing in recent years from students, parents and school system officials about outdated computers and network infrastructure that must be upgraded on a regular basis, but the schedule is lagging because of a lack of funds.
"Please support the future of our students, our teachers and our schools," Tabor said.
Many of the speakers talked about the lifelong benefits students have gained from drama, Harford Glen overnights and swimming, include two cases in which HCPS students saved others from drowning.
"I can honestly say that swimming has made me a better student," Charlie Musante, a senior at C. Milton Wright High School, said.
Board member Al Williamson asked Patrick Spicer, the school system's general counsel, if the federal Every Student Succeeds Act would affect HCPS decisions on student programs if the act puts "greater weight on outside activities in terms of determining college and career readiness."
He noted the topic came up when he attended a recent Maryland State Department of Education input session.
Spicer said he has heard "nothing to that effect from my perspective."
"It's still a state-by-state analysis as to what's integral to the direct core mission of the school system and what is extra beyond that," he said.
Board member Laura Runyeon said the MSDE is seeking public input on its plan to implement the federal act, which was signed by President Barack Obama in 2015, and she encouraged people to seek more information online.
Board President Nancy Reynolds said people can complete a survey on the state department's website.
"The MSDE is truly interested in everybody's input, so it takes about 20 minutes to take the survey, and it would be very advantageous," she said.
The school board input session took place simultaneously with County Executive Barry Glassman's annual virtual town hall meeting on his approaching budget.
A handful of people who spoke live during that brief session at Harford Community College warned that the county needs get serious about increasing the money it provides to the school system to stem an alarming loss of experienced teachers and an inability to recruit their replacements because of low salaries relative to other nearby counties.
Glassman also received tweets and emails urging that he fully fund the $17 million increase in county funding which school officials are expected to request.