Harford school board keeps budget review process open until Feb. 12

Anyone who wants to comment on the proposed 2018-19 Harford County Public Schools budget will have two more opportunities, after the Board of Education decided earlier this week to keep the review process open three additional weeks.

The board agreed to host a work session next week — which includes time for public input — and has postponed its vote on the budget to Feb. 12.

“I think, when we are doing our due diligence one of [our duties] is to make sure we are getting enough public input in this budget,” board member Rachel Gauthier said during a spirited debate among her colleagues about whether or not to vote on the budget Monday, in accordance with the schedule established earlier in the current school year.

The work session will be Monday, Jan. 29, at 6 p.m. in the school board meeting room in the A.A. Roberty Building, 102 S. Hickory Ave. in Bel Air. The Feb. 12 board meeting, which includes time for public comment, will at 6:30 p.m. and will be in the Roberty Building.

Once again, divisions surfaced among the 10 board members over the budget proposed by Superintendent Barbara Canavan, and the board president was rebuffed by several other members when he tried to move the budget to a final vote Monday.

Canavan has proposed a $466.1 million operating budget for next year, $20.1 million more than the $446 million budget the school board adopted for fiscal 2018. Most of the new spending would cover nearly $15.5 million needed for salaries and wages so the school system can fund the final year of a three-year agreement between the school board and teachers’ union granting teachers two salary steps and a 2 percent COLA each year.

The board must adopt the request and send it to the county executive. Canavan and her top aides are seeking more than half of next year’s revenue from the county, $263.5 million. They are also seeking $198.9 million from the state, with the remainder coming from the federal government and “other” sources.

This will be the final budget for Canavan, who is retiring June 30.

Gauthier suggested scheduling one public input session before the board votes on the budget during its Feb. 12 meeting “to allow the community to come in and say what they think is important.”

Two public input sessions, scheduled for Jan. 8 and Jan. 17, were canceled as schools closed early the first day and were closed all day the second, both times because of inclement weather.

No one from the public spoke at the first session on Jan. 3; four people spoke during a Jan. 10 meeting, and their priorities included school safety, reducing class sizes, greater faculty diversity and cultural education for students.

Diversity and cultural education, as well as honoring teacher salary commitments, were key budget priorities among the 11 people who spoke during the public comment portion of Monday’s meeting.

“We ask [teachers] to do a lot, and as a result I think we need to implement practices that help and support them, and we need to fund their salaries,” said Delane Lewis, a Baldwin resident and founder of Together We Will-Harford County/Upper Chesapeake.

Board President Joseph Voskuhl had planned to hold a discussion on the budget Monday, giving his colleagues time to ask questions of budget staff and call for a vote in February, explaining in an interview prior to the session that the budget can be submitted to the county by the end of February.

But then Voskuhl ended up moving for a vote Monday, since only one formal question was posed, from Vice President Laura Runyeon. Other board members said, however, that they needed more time to talk with budget office staff.

“We have had ample time to question the budget and ask for explanations on the budget over the course of the past few months,” Voskuhl replied.

Board member Alfred Williamson said the 15 minutes allocated on the agenda was not “appropriate” for him “ to even begin to address questions that I have.”

Williamson has been a vocal opponent of the budget as presented by Canavan, since the school system historically has received a fraction of the funding increases it requests. Another frequent board critic of the budget, Robert Frisch, was absent from Monday’s meeting.

Canavan has stressed this year, as in prior years, that her request is based on what she and her staff have determined is needed for an “instructionally sound” budget.

“We cut this budget to the bone, and I think that’s important for not just people in this room but this entire community to understand,” she said Monday.

Williamson has also questioned how the 2 percent COLAs are being funded, as they are phased in through the calendar year with 1 percent covered between Jan. 1 and June 30 and the other 1 percent covered between July 1 and Dec. 31, which means the funding for that COLA is spread over two fiscal years, as explained by budget and finance staff.

“If you paid salaries in this fiscal year, I don’t know why you need to budget them for the next fiscal year,” Williamson said.

Voskhul, however, said he was “at the point” approve Canavan’s proposed budget “and do not delay that process so our budget office can forward it to the county executive and the County Council for their understanding and their approval.”

Board member Jansen Robinson said he could not support such a motion. He said the HCPS budget “deserves ample consideration and deliberation,” especially since it requires a significant portion of Harford County revenue.

Board member Thomas Fitzpatrick said he was “perfectly comfortable” voting on the budget Monday, however. He said he did not understand why the funding mechanism for COLAs needed further discussion, as “this is the third year of a three-year negotiated agreement, which we have managed the same way” throughout the period.

Still, a majority of the board members agreed with Gauthier’s suggestion, postponed the vote to Feburary and set up next Monday’s work session.

Canavan encouraged board members to contact her staff with any questions and said they are willing to meet as many times as necessary.

“We’re happy to do whatever it is we can to move forward what we believe is an instructionally sound budget,” she said.

Student representative Matt Resnick later expressed his support for creating a budget in line with past allocations.

“Students want a budget, not things that we know won’t materialize,” he said after the meeting.

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