A $446 million Harford County Public Schools unrestricted operating budget for the next school year that will result in the elimination of 36 teaching and seven non-teaching positions was approved unanimously by the Board of Education Monday night.
Even though HCPS officials say no current employees will involuntarily lose their jobs – the positions are either vacant or expected to be at the end of this school year from retirements and other normal attrition – board member Robert Frisch called the need to reduce teachers a "collective failure" of the school board.
"We do not need to be talking about classroom teacher positions," he said. "There are other alternatives — unfortunately, we haven't explored enough of them in a reasonable or timely fashion."
The board also unanimously approved a $29.9 million restricted budget, a $17.1 million food service budget and a $48.6 million capital budget, all for the next fiscal year, beginning July 1.
The new budget has no cuts in programs and no additional participation fees imposed on students and their parents. Earlier this year, the board rescinded a controversial $100 drama participation fee imposed in last June's budget reconciliation process. The $100 fee to participate in each interscholastic sport remains, however.
Amanda Dorsey, the board's student representative who graduated from Edgewood High School two weeks ago as her class' valedictorian, thanked her colleagues for listening to the community and rescinding the drama fee, plus making funding available to restore fifth-grade overnight visits to the Harford Glen Environmental Education Center and preserving the high school swimming program. Dorsey will leave the board at the end of June.
Swimming programs also faced the budget ax last year, but were preserved in the face of public outcry and protests.
Dorsey said the new budget might not be exactly what everyone wants, but "it's a step forward in a positive direction."
"That's because of a collaborative effort of every single member on this board, so I've been very happy to be able to serve as a part of this, to be able to say that I'm one of you," she said.
The operating budget covers the expenses of the day-to-day operations of a school system that serves about 37,500 students and has about 5,000 employees.
Board members had to reconcile their $456.06 million budget passed earlier this year with final revenue adjustments from the county, state and federal governments.
Although the county raised its funding by $5.2 million, that was still $12.8 million less than the school system requested. Conversely, the final budget reflects an increase of $2.1 million in state funding over what was originally budgeted.
The school system will also get $420,000 in federal revenue, $3.12 million in "other" revenue and a $5.46 million transfer from its operating fund balance, or cash reserves, to support its adopted operating budget.
The reduction of 36 teaching positions in the operating budget was the only aspect of the reconciliation process that prompted debate among school board members, who had to agree to close a $10.06 million gap between what they originally approved and what became available on the revenue side.
In addition to the position reductions, more than $4.53 million in adjustments were found in areas such as transportation, utilities, fuel and printing and copying. Also approved, according to budget documents, was the swapping out a $17.3 million wage package for a $14.1 million "graduated wage implementation."
The latter results from the school's five employee bargaining units agreeing to receive their planned cost of living increases – averaging 2 percent – in the middle of the fiscal year, rather than at the beginning, school officials said.
No one 'lost employment'
The teacher reductions have been accomplished through attrition, and "no teacher has lost employment," Jean Mantegna, assistant superintendent for human resources, noted in an emailed statement prior to the board meeting.
"In the case of an occupied position being eliminated, the teacher has been reassigned to an appropriate position within the school or another school that has a vacancy in the specific content area," she wrote.
During a half hour long budget work session Thursday evening, members of Superintendent Barbara Canavan's staff said the teacher reductions will have a minimal, though unwelcome, impact on class sizes and teacher/student ratios, and no programs will be eliminated.
Angela Morton, executive director of elementary education, said 14 teaching positions will be cut at the elementary level.
"There are minimal increases in class sizes," Morton said, "however, that has been the case over the last couple of years that class sizes have gradually climbed, and we are a little bit above the optimal number by board policy."
"There isn't a hard limit on class sizes," she continued, "but according to board policy we try to keep third, fourth and fifth grade as close to 25 [students] as we can and the grades below that as close to 20 as we can."
Comments draw fire
During Monday's discussion of the budget, Frisch, who is the longest-serving member with seven years on the board, noted Harford County voters will be casting ballots in a primary election next June in local races that include those for school board.
"Maybe it's time for the voters to take stock and pay attention to what the votes are this evening, and the rest of the year as well," he said.
Frisch said he "simply can't, in good faith," support the amendment to reconcile the budget by eliminating the 36 positions, despite his certainty it would be passed. Frisch and board member Rachel Gauthier cast the only votes against it.
All other reconciliation amendments, including the one to eliminate seven non-teaching positions, passed unanimously and with little to no discussion.
Frisch's comments generated scattered applause from those in the audience, which included teachers who urged board members to make greater efforts to increase teacher salaries and citizens concerned about the impact of losing 36 teaching slots.
"Even if a school just loses one teacher that can significantly increase class sizes particularly if a specific class or program is cut," Hillary Doherty, whose children attend Southampton Middle School and C. Milton Wright High School in Bel Air, said during the public comment portion of the meeting.
She acknowledged that "everybody's job is important, but students are most affected by and most remember their teachers."
Frisch's comments also drew fire from his fellow board members, however.
"I don't think anybody should be under the impression that anybody up here is anxious to cut 36 teaching positions," board member Thomas Fitzpatrick said.
"It pains me to be, basically, accused of not stepping up," he added.
Board member Laura Runyeon said she was "completely sickened" by Frisch's remarks.
"For any individual up here to use this situation as an opportunity to promote themselves at the expense of their colleagues is disgusting," she said.
Board President Nancy Reynolds added: "I fully support what you [Runyeon] said; it is very disturbing."
More for teachers
Fitzpatrick, who has been on the board for five years, noted budgets were balanced in several prior years by eliminating positions, even as there were no salary increases for teachers or other HCPS employees.
"In the last few years, we've had the good fortune to get some additional funding from the county," he said. "That funding reflects the overall proportion of growth in revenue in the county."
Fitzpatrick noted the FY18 budget is "actually the cleanest" budget he has seen and possibly has the fewest personnel cuts.
Teachers, whose salaries have lagged behind those in surrounding jurisdictions, got two steps on the salary scale this year and will get two steps in fiscal 2018, along with a 2 percent cost of living increase at mid-year plus an additional 0.5 percent negotiated as a result of health care coverage adjustments.
The board's three-year agreement with the teachers union, the Harford County Education Association, which took effect in this current school year, calls for another two-step increase for eligible teachers in fiscal 2019.
Board Vice President Joseph Voskuhl, a former Bel Air High School principal, acknowledged the pain school administrators and teachers will feel at the loss of their colleagues, but said he is thankful teachers "will suck it up and continue to do the great job that they do in this county."
"They will overcome it [position cuts] next year and our test scores will be high and we'll be ranked up right up there with all the other school systems in the state that pay their teachers more," he said.
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This story has been updated with a correction. The funding gap that had to be closed in the final budget was $10.06 million.