Harford County Board of Education member Albert Williamson, shown at a budget hearing last January, is pushing for the board to be more involved in the early stages of setting priorities for the next budget.
Harford County Board of Education member Albert Williamson, shown at a budget hearing last January, is pushing for the board to be more involved in the early stages of setting priorities for the next budget. (MATT BUTTON/THE AEGIS/BSMG)

For some Harford County Board of Education members, who have a history of chafing at annual budgets submitted by the superintendent, they are again trying to assert themselves as the process begins anew for the 2018-19 school year budget.

The issue is what some board members — thus far in the minority among the nine — believe are unrealistic requests by Superintendent Barbara Canavan for county funding.

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They say, the requests have generated ill will with elected officials who must approve the funding as well as with segments of the public who believe the schools — and hence, students — are being short-changed by those who control the purse strings.

The split on the board first surfaced in late 2015 and repeated again at the board’s most recent meeting on Oct. 23, when some members pushed to establish the board’s budget priorities early in the process, before Canavan sets her priorities and makes them public.

Despite the effort, however, nothing from the board’s standpoint will be done until its next meeting at 6:30 p.m. on Monday, Nov. 6. The superintendent will hold what is being billed as a “virtual town hall meeting” on the next budget earlier from 4:30-6 p.m.

Board member Alfred Williamson initiated the setting of priorities discussion during the Oct. 23 meeting, saying he wants the board and the superintendent to work together toward crafting a budget request that reflects the funding that has been allocated in prior years, rather than the amount the superintendent states now is necessary to run the school system.

The difference between the two, Williamson said, is usually millions of dollars more than the county and state have allocated historically.

“It doesn’t make any sense, from a common sense [perspective], that we get a budget that’s $16, $19, $29 million more than we know we’re going to get,” he said.

His initial proposal to set priorities before Canavan can go public with hers was voted down, but his colleagues did support a second motion by board member Rachel Gauthier to have a discussion on the issue at the next meeting.

The board voted 8-2 in favor of Gauthier’s motion to put the discussion on the Nov. 6 agenda. Members Thomas Fitzpatrick and Nancy Reynolds cast the negative votes, Reynolds saying she wants more time to hear from the public. Student representative Matt Resnik voted with the majority.

“I was happy with the fact that we got the two weeks to be more specific in terms of the actual suggestions we make,” Williamson said Monday.

He said he was speaking for himself, not other board members. Both he and Gauthier have been publicly critical in the past of Canavan’s budgets, as has board member Robert Frisch.

Canavan is in the final year of her four-year contract. By state law, she has until February to inform the board if she wishes to be considered for reappointment and a new four-year contract. The budget she is working on for the 2018-19 school year will be in effect whether she stays or leaves.

The superintendent’s virtual town hall will be held Nov. 6 from 4:30 to 6 p.m. and streamed live online via the Harford County Public Schools website, http://www.hcps.org. The public can submit comments during the town hall via email and Twitter. The school board meeting will follow at 6:30 p.m.

The superintendent spends the summer and fall crafting her budget request, based on public input and the costs of the multitude of services provided by the school system.

Her budget is then submitted to the Board of Education in January. The board can adjust the request before sending it to the county and state.

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About half of the revenue for the $446 million fiscal 2018 operating budget came from the county, which allocated $233.5 million. The board’s budget request called for $251.6 million, a difference of $18.1 million.

The board had to make up the difference by reducing positions, finding savings in its day-to-day operations and scaling back the amount of money slated for teacher salary increases.

Williamson said he hopes next week’s discussion will produce for the superintendent “a framework for the budget process.”

Then, the board can go to the county government “with a number that is realistic in terms of what we can expect back,” he said.

“The number we get back is a number that we can manipulate, not just have to cut,” he said.

Williamson stressed that “manipulate” refers to allowing the board to “make trade-offs” or “hopefully even have a little leeway” as its budget request is finalized.

He suggests giving the county executive a funding request around what he allocated for the current fiscal year, plus about 50 percent of the county’s increased revenue for the prior year – a reflection of what the county budget allocates for education related spending.

The budget request should come with a commitment to preserving sports and other student extracurricular activities and “a general statement about the teachers, that we want to take care of the teachers,” Williamson said.

The school board doesn’t usually give direction as the superintendent is preparing an annual budget submission, but Williamson cited state education regulations that give boards of education the authority to prepare an annual budget with advice from superintendents.

“Subject to the rules and regulations of the State Board and with the advice of the county superintendent, each county board shall prepare an annual budget,” according to Section 5-101 of the state’s education code.

Other board members expressed frustration with the budget process and agreed the board should weigh in when Williamson fist brought up his proposal, but several said they were not prepared to discuss the issue that evening.

Fitzpatrick acknowledged he has found the budget process, in which the board submits a request before revenue figures are in hand, “frustrating and bewildering.”

“It is the process that we are given because that’s the way the laws are written,” he said.

Board President Joseph Voskuhl took issue with setting a limit for the superintendent.

“I can’t support that, because it’s the superintendent’s job to advocate for what [she] and her staff believe is necessary to operate the school system at the highest level,” he said.

The board can then decide if it agrees with everything in the proposed budget, Voskuhl said, adding that if they don’t agree with a line item, “it then becomes my job to advocate for a cut in that line item, whatever it may be.”

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