Howard County schools Superintendent Michael Martirano believes the coronavirus pandemic has taught the system several lessons.
The biggest one, which he’s repeated for the past 11 months, is that “there’s more to the educational process than curriculum” — something he says when emphasizing the importance of in-person learning.
However, he also recognizes there are some kids in the 57,000-student school system who have fared better in a virtual environment than they did before the pandemic.
That’s why, in combination with the experience the district now has with online learning, the school board unanimously decided last week to add $6.2 million to the system’s fiscal 2022 operating budget proposal for the Digital Education Center — a virtual learning program irrespective of the pandemic that could be offered to some students starting this fall.
“One of the many things we’ve learned during this pandemic is that many of our young people who were not successful in traditional education in normalized school have found great success in the virtual environment,” said Martirano during a school board meeting last week. “When we’re talking about equity and more access and credit recovery and improving graduation rates, this is a major lesson learned that we need to offer in our school system.”
However, the fiscal 2022 operating budget the Board of Education sent to the Howard County government is still months away from being approved. That means new initiatives or positions included will not be official until the final adoption by the board in May or June — after County Executive Calvin Ball and the County Council determines the amount of funding the school system will receive.
In past years, the amount of money the school board asked the county for has been significantly higher than the amount of funding provided, and this year is no different.
The board’s $960.2 million spending plan — which requests $670.4 million from the county on top of the projected $289.8 million from the state and federal government — asks for $50.1 million more from the county government than the school system received last fiscal year. The 8% increase in requested funding from the county would be the largest single-year increase since fiscal 2008.
“I really like the idea of the Digital Education Center,” said Chao Wu, the school board’s chair. “At the same time, I’m concerned about the funding level because we know we’re not able to get the full funding.”
The Digital Education Center is a “virtual, alternative learning option” that would allow students to take classes “in collaboration with their assigned home school,” according to a memo sent from the district to the school board.
The program would look different for every student in it, according to Caroline Walker, the school system’s executive director of program innovation. She envisions some students taking all of their classes in the Digital Education Center — which requires its own staff, administration and learning tools — while others would also take a class at the in-person school they’re assigned to.
Students in the program, Walker said, would still be counted in that school’s enrollment — meaning money from funding authorities or Title I status wouldn’t be impacted by the center — and would also be able to participate in clubs, sports or other activities at their assigned school.
“It may be a way that some students would receive the primary bulk of their education, but we would still want students to participate in clubs and activities or take a class at their home school,” Walker said.
In the proposed plan, courses would be offered during the fall, spring and summer semesters and could be offered from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. The budget projects an initial enrollment of 1,250 students in kindergarten through 12th grade, although the district will be surveying parents this month to gauge interest.
While a few board members expressed concerns about the fundability of the program, the vote was unanimous and multiple members called it “innovative.”
“We have had so many lessons learned from this experience that it is incumbent upon us, I believe, to take advantage of that,” said Jen Mallo, the board’s vice chair. “Now is the time to really move forward on this innovative solution and make the most of all those lessons learned.”
“This is something we should be offering,” member Christina Delmont-Small said. “We want to make sure we do take what we’ve learned the past year and implement it going forward.”
Most of the $6.2 million for the program is for staffing and benefits. The plan, as detailed in the budget, requires two administrators, 48 teachers, 23 paraeducators and two counselors.
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In response to members’ fundability concerns, Martirano said the plan could be “phased in” at a lower initial cost. Walker said she projects $2 million would be necessary to get the program started at the high school level.
“I’m extremely committed to implementing this,” Martirano said. “This is an opportunity for us. There are different models of implementation. I support asking for the total amount, and if there is not that full amount, we’d look for ways to implement that with the funding we have.”
When Martirano submitted his budget proposal in January — the first step in a monthslong process — he called it “pragmatic and fundable.” The $932.4 million plan is 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 Feb. 25 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 past five years, was at $39.2 million after fiscal 2019, but the system cut it in half last year.
Most of the rest of the $9.1 million is for the Digital Education Center and additional mental health staff as part of a new “school and security” program related to the much-discussed school resource officer program.
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.