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Harford school parent pushes for greater public involvement in budget process

Harford school parent pushes for greater public involvement in budget process
Harford County Public Schools (AEGIS FILE PHOTO / Baltimore Sun)

Just one person from the public spoke during the Harford County Board of Education's first of three budget work sessions Wednesday evening, and she urged school officials to find ways to get more people involved in the budget process, but later on when there is actual money on the table.

Bel Air resident Hillary Doherty, a parent of two Southampton Middle School students, said she has talked to people in her community about the school budget, but there has been skepticism about giving public input so early in the process.

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"[They ask] 'Why should I come here, because really, we're not funding it, at this point we're just discussing what we want,'" Doherty said of her neighbors' views.

Harford County Public Schools Superintendent Barbara Canavan presented to the board in mid-December a proposed $459.2 million proposed operating budget for the 2016-17 school year.

The proposed budget is $28 million higher than the $431.2 million budget approved for the current school year and, according to Canavan, it reflects a desire to increase employee salaries, as well as the need to spend more on benefits, pensions, critical school system needs and costs of business such as maintenance contracts and insurance.

But all of the increased funding is being sought from Harford County, which makes it unlikely much will be forthcoming.

County increases to the school budget in the previous three years averaged just $2.8 million annually, including a $4.5 million increase provided in the current year's budget, according to HCPS figures. County Executive Barry Glassman said last month that overall county revenues are growing, but only by 2 to 3 percent.

Because of a projected slight decrease in state funding, Canavan's budget requests a $29.1 million increase in county funding to $257.3 million. That's a 12.7 percent increase over the $228.2 million HCPS currently receives from the county. If the full request were funded, the county's share of revenue in the HCPS budget would increase from the current 49.4 percent to 55.5 percent.

According to school officials, most of the additional funding sought from the county would cover salary increases, benefits and pension costs.

The school board is holding work sessions and public input sessions throughout January and is to vote on the budget request Jan. 25, but Doherty said until the budget approved by the board and sent for action by the county executive and county council, it's basically nothing more than a wish list.

"Who do we talk to, to make sure we get the money to do the things that we all know need to be done?" she asked.

She said parents know "the [superintendent's] priority list can't necessarily be achieved with the money that we have."

Doherty encouraged school officials to provide information online via schools' Edline pages and communicate with Parent-Teacher Associations, however, "so that we get parents speaking to the people that are going to help fund this budget."

Doherty said residents she has spoken with "feel that we have an excellent school system" overall, and they are pleased with students' recent scores on the PARCC standardized tests, on which they beat statewide average scores.

She said some of their priorities for spending to improve the school system, or preserve valued services, include decreasing class sizes, keeping the remaining bus routes for magnet school students, providing professional development geared toward gifted and talented teachers and "continually" providing money for technology.

"We want to make sure there's technology in place that's current and modern, for those who are unable to bring their own technology," Doherty said, referring to the HCPS initiative, begun last year, to encourage students to bring their own smart phones, tablets and laptops to school, because the school system doesn't have enough devices to go around.

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The next school budget work session will be at 6 p.m. Jan. 11 at the school system's headquarters in the A.A. Roberty Building in Bel Air.

Additional sessions are scheduled for noon Jan. 13 in the Roberty Building, followed by a session at 6 p.m. the same day in the Aberdeen High School media center, then 6 p.m. Jan. 19 in the Epicenter in Edgewood and finally 6 p.m. Jan. 21 back at the Roberty Building.

The public also can comment during the regularly-scheduled school board business meeting, which starts at 6:3 0 p.m. Jan. 25 in the Roberty Building.

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