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Virtual Howard County budget hearing focuses on education spending

Amid the coronavirus health emergency, the Howard County budget season presses on, including with a three-hour virtual public hearing Monday night at which most of the testimony fixated on the school system’s budget.

Originally scheduled for March 12, Howard County Executive Calvin Ball’s budget public hearing was moved to a virtual setting, a result of coronavirus pandemic.

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“I don’t completely know how the current crisis impacts the county’s fiscal position, but I do know that the coronavirus pandemic has brought to light a fundamental truth that people in education have always known — we need our schools,” said Nick Novak, Howard High’s principal and president of the Howard County Administrators Association.

“Whatever can be done to fully fund the school system’s request for next year should be done. Our communities, our schools, our staffs and our students need a solid and reliable institution to return to” once schools reopen, Novak said.

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The Board of Education in February advanced a $947.8 million spending plan seeking $657.1 million from the county, $282.6 million from the state, $410,000 from federal funding and $7.5 million from other sources.

Vice Chairwoman Vicky Cutroneo was planning on providing testimony on behalf of the entire school board Monday night, but her name was not called after she had confirmed she was on the list.

“The [school] board’s operating budget request is not a budget of wants, nor even one that addresses all our needs,” Cutroneo wrote in her testimony. “The board, superintendent and staff made many difficult decisions to reduce our proposed budget requests to our most pressing priorities and obligations.”

The board’s requested budget includes a class-size increase, reallocating existing positions and a phase-in approach to bolster special education. “These reductions create challenges that will escalate as the [school] system prepares to welcome 773 additional students next year” to the existing 59,000 students, Cutroneo wrote.

While the school board “recognize[s] the county faces steep challenges” in allocating funding among the school system and other county agencies, “I urge you to consider the critical role of school quality by attracting businesses and residents to our community … for the local economy and long-term future of our county,” Cutroneo wrote.

Several Howard County residents expressed their concerns with the school system’s special education funding levels. In November, special education staff members testified during a school board meeting where they warned that special educators in the school system are reaching a breaking point because of underfunding and understaffing by the county.

“Over and over again special education parents have raised the alarm on the decline of services for our children, yet we are told they are doing their best with the resources available,” said Dianne Henry, a Columbia resident.

With the special education budget not being fulfilled “year after year … the trickle-down effect of this is seeing our most vulnerable students suffer due to ever-increasing class sizes, using inadequately trained aides and paraeducators to fulfill IEP [Individualized Education Program] hours, while our special educators are overloaded with cases,” Henry said.

Barb Krupiarz, an Ellicott City resident and former co-chair of the Special Education Citizens Advisory Committee of Howard County, discussed how the “only” program the school board cut in its budget request was special education.

“I have been critical of the school system for the lack of evaluation of special education programs and justification of their budget dollars spent,” Krupiarz said.

“Between 2013 and 2019, HCPSS gained 1,006 additional special education students and only three special education teachers,” Krupiarz added, who referenced these figures from the Maryland State Department of Education. “The HCPSS plan has been to meet their legal requirements on paper for adults assigned to special education students by hiring nonprofessional staff, that means untrained aides.”

Chao Wu testified as a parent, not as a school board member.

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“HCPSS is in a crisis mode where schools are overcrowded, buildings lack maintenance and resources are needed everywhere in the school system,” Wu said.

“In my opinion, the county budget needs to shift its priority to the education of our children.”

To shift its priority, Wu said, the county needs to spend less in other areas of the countywide budget and increase the share for the school system.

“Our schools’ good reputation is on the lifeline now. If it starts going downwards, it would be very difficult to reverse the trend,” Wu added.

Ball is expected to present the county operating budget April 20; then it will go to the County Council. The council is scheduled to adopt the countywide budget May 27.

The school board is expected to adopt its final budget May 28.

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