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Howard school board advances $960 million operating budget to county executive, council

The Howard County Board of Education is advancing a $960 million spending plan that requests a considerable increase in funding from the county.

The school board voted unanimously Thursday afternoon to send the proposed fiscal 2022 operating budget to County Executive Calvin Ball and the County Council. The board’s spending plan requests $50.1 million more from the county government than the school system received last fiscal year.

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The 8% increase in requested funding from the county would be the largest single-year increase since fiscal 2008.

“The board’s budget requests the funding needed to maintain existing levels of services and supports for students, staff and schools,” Howard County schools Superintendent Michael Martirano said. “... The impact of the [coronavirus] pandemic on student achievement and the additional supports that will be needed as students return to schools is absolutely critical.”

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In total, the $960.2 million budget is $41.6 million larger than the school system’s approved fiscal 2021 spending plan.

The proposed budget is requesting $670.4 million from the county on top of the projected $289.8 million from the state and federal government. The amount of projected funding by the state — according to the Maryland State Department of Education’s preliminary draft calculations from January — is basically the same as last year.

Ultimately, Ball and the County Council decide how much money from the county is allocated to the school system for fiscal 2022. The superintendent and the Board of Education then get to officially decide in late May or early June how to distribute the money.

“With the budget, we’re hopeful, but at the same time we’re realistic,” school board Chair Chao Wu said. “We’ll continue to work on this ... and we’ll continue to advocate sufficient support for our school system.”

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When Martirano submitted his budget proposal in January — the first step in a monthslong process — he called it “pragmatic and fundable.” His plan was $932.4 million, which was significantly less than his spending proposals in the past.

After work sessions and the addition of several positions and programs, however, the budget the board advanced Thursday was $27.8 million more than what Martirano originally requested.

The majority of the increase is from a one-time request of $18.7 million to eliminate the deficit in the school system’s health and dental fund. The deficit, which has beset the district for the last five years, was at $39.2 million after fiscal 2019, but the system cut it in half last year.

The other $9.1 million was requested for additional mental health staff, the Digital Education Center — a “virtual, alternative learning option” irrespective of the pandemic — and miscellaneous additions.

In past years, the school system’s budget request has been trimmed by county leaders, and this spending plan is likely to undergo a similar process. Last fiscal year, the district received $36.9 million less than it asked for; in fiscal 2020, the budget was reduced by about $100 million from what Martirano originally proposed.

In a letter sent to the school board last week, county Budget Director Holly Sun asked the members to consider the county’s “funding constraints.” The county is projecting $26 million in revenue growth for its fiscal 2022 operating budget, with only half that increase able to go out to public services like schools.

“Given the limited amount of available funding growth to support operating budgets across county public services, an operating budget increase to support [the school system] at the level proposed in the superintendent’s request can only be achieved through either a significant reduction in all other services to the community or a tax increase,” Sun wrote.

The priorities in the proposed budget — which does not cut services, reduce staff, increase class sizes or use money from the general fund balance — are special education, mental health and technology.

“The proposal accounts for enrollment growth, sustains the school system’s recent investment in technology and software, addresses critical shortages in special education and enhances funding to support student mental health services, dyslexia and reading instruction,” Martirano said.

Last fiscal year, the board’s adopted budget included class-size increases, as well as the removal of pay raises for educators following a ninth-inning renegotiation with the teachers union. The Howard County Education Association, which recently enacted a work-to-rule resolution in protest of the upcoming hybrid learning model, and the board are currently negotiating a new contract.

In total, more than 225 new positions are included in the proposed budget.

One of the biggest investments is, once again, to special education services. The plan adds 70.7 educator positions to support nearly 6,000 special education students. The increase is the fifth straight budget under Martirano, who became the district’s superintendent in 2017, in which special education has received an increase in funding of more than $4 million.

Ball will now review the school board’s request and submit his proposed county budget, including education spending, to the County Council. Ball is scheduled to have a budget presentation at 6:30 p.m. April 19.

The County Council is expected to approve the countywide budget May 21, and the school board is scheduled to adopt its final operating budget May 27.

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