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.
These include preserving the interscholastic swimming program, rescinding a $100 drama participation fee, restoring overnight visits at the Harford Glen Environmental Education Center and ensuring financial support for Harford County Public Schools teachers.
Thursday's session will be the fourth held by the board of education on the proposed $455.2 million budget proposed by Superintendent Barbara Canavan. School officials are requesting $250.7 million from the county for next year, a $17.2 million, or 7.4 percent, increase from the $233.5 million in this year's budget. Total spending, however, will increase 3.7 percent.
The total budget request is $16.3 million more than the $438.9 million budget adopted for this year. The primary driver of the increased spending is a request for $14.9 million to fund employee wage and salary increases and $3.8 million to cover increases in benefit costs, such as health insurance, according to Superintendent Barbara Canavan and her staff.
The school system announced last week that it had reached tentative agreements with three unions representing approximately 4,800 of HCPS nearly 5,150 employees, including the largest union which represents 3,000 classroom teachers and other certificated professionals.
All three bargaining units are working on multi-year contracts and are due to receive a 2 percent cost of living adjustment, or COLA, applied to all salary schedules and two steps for eligible employees, according to an HCPS announcement. The salary adjustments are contingent upon necessary fiscal support from the funding authorities, as stated in the agreements, HCPS said.
The county government is the school system's largest funding source, and the additional local funds requested are slated for salary and benefit increases.
The final public input session starts at 6 p.m. Thursday in the A.A. Roberty Building in Bel Air. The board is scheduled to vote on the budget request Monday, after which it will be sent to Harford County Executive Barry Glassman.
Parents, others speak out
The third public input session on Jan. 11 was packed again as parents spoke against some of the proposals.
"Let's rearrange our spending so that the budget cuts don't directly impact and harm our kids," parent Juniper Ernest, of Forest Hill, said.
Ernest, whose children attend Bel Air High School, was one of about 35 people who spoke during the two-hour session.
School officials made presentations on the budget at the first two public input sessions, but they were not at last Wednesday's session – it was just the school board and the public.
About 27 Emmorton Elementary School teachers, parents, support staff and administrators attended the meeting. The group stood as Emmorton teachers were speaking to show support for their desire that the school board not make any cuts in Canavan's budget request before sending it to the county.
Third-grade teacher Jennifer Howard said Emmorton faculty and staff members want school system leaders to ask for "all of the money our county needs for it to be successful for the education" of students.
Swimming, Harford Glen and participation fees have been most on the minds of parents and students attending the public sessions, though.
The most recent session was preceded by a rally outside the Roberty Building, in which about 200 people took part, according to Edgewood High School parent Leo Bulavko. He, his wife and son, Josh, an EHS swimmer and youth swim coach, have spoken during multiple school board meetings about the need to keep the school system's three pools open and preserve the swimming program.
The family is part of the nonprofit group Save Harford County Swimming Inc., which worked with allied groups to organize the rally.
The rally was not just about protecting swimming, a topic that dominated last Wednesday's meeting as well as the prior budget meetings, but saving other sports and extracurricular activities from budget cutbacks.
"They are trying to solve their overall budget problem by going against extracurricular activities, and if they're successful with swimming they will go after other sports," parent Ray Hruz, of Bel Air, said after the meeting.
Parent Peter Silton, of Bel Air, whose children have all been swimmers, spoke about preserving the sport "as a metaphor for many other things," such as building students' self confidence and preparing for future success.
"What has to be done here is to provide the opportunity for people to have individual success and to use that as a model for many other paradigms," he said.
Canavan's budget includes proposals to cut nearly $449,000 from the swim program and pool maintenance and more than $271,000 from the overnight stay program for fifth-graders at Harford Glen. The cuts would effectively kill both programs.
The superintendent and her staff have cited excessive maintenance expenses for the pools and Harford Glen's bunk facilities. The overnights, which had been a 35-year tradition for fifth-graders countywide, ended in 2015 because of high capital costs and a bedbug issue.
The school board approved a one-time transfer from its operating fund balance to handle maintenance issues for this year's budget.
Harford Glen remains in operation, but for daytime programs only.
The overnight programs have not been reinstated yet, according to Ruth Eisenhour, the teacher in charge at the sprawling environmental education center off West Wheel Road. She wore a white shirt bearing the Harford Glen duck's head logo when speaking to the school board.
"Every visitor to our award-winning environmental education center sees first-hand that our lodges, classrooms, dining hall and campus are safe, healthy and secure," she said.
Eisenhour said the bedbugs "have been eradicated for almost two years."
Bedbugs are known for biting people and sucking their blood, and they can infest beds, furniture, luggage and clothing.
Eisenhour said Harford Glen staff have developed new protocols for how students and their families pack and handle luggage to avoid bringing in the bugs.
She said Harford Glen staff have also collaborated with various schools to find ways to save money.
"If we can provide additional information as you enter the decision-making process about the fate of our beloved program, we will make ourselves available whenever you need us; the door is always open," Eisenhour said.
More on fees
The Aegis: Top stories
The school board instituted the $100 drama participation fee for the current school year to help raise money for drama programs, as well as create a small revenue source to offset another one-time fund balance transfer approved last June to keep the pools open one more year.
Money raised from the drama fee, as well as the $100 fee to play interscholastic sports, goes to the school system's general operating budget.
High school drama students and their supporters have been vocal about rescinding the participation fee, noting it has prevented a number of students who could not afford it from taking part in productions so far this year.
Ernest, the Bel Air High parent, said the participation fees are "excluding the very population who could benefit the most from being involved" in school.
"Let's work with the swim program to save it, and please, I'm asking you to remove the pay-to-perform fees so that we can keep our stages free to all kids," Ernest said.
Board Vice President Joseph Voskuhl stressed the budget is the board's responsibility and that every member has been working on the issues brought up by the public.
Board President Nancy Reynolds also encouraged residents to take part in Glassman's Virtual Town Hall Meeting on next year's county budget. That meeting will be broadcast live on the county website Thursday at 6 p.m.; participants can submit comments via social media, email or by calling 443-412-2700.