Members of the Howard County Council lambasted the Howard County Public School System’s budgeting process as the council voted 3-2 on Wednesday against a budget amendment to provide $2.7 million more to the school system’s fiscal 2024 operating budget.
“I’m incredibly disappointed and frustrated that we find ourselves in the same situation every year, dealing with the same last-minute scramble regarding the HCPSS budget, which is a result of HCPSS’s approach to the budget,” Council Chair Christiana Rigby, a Democrat representing District 3, said at the council’s budget adoption session. “We are again trying to find last-minute solutions because the responsibility to do this in the beginning of the process was abdicated.”
The Howard school board is set to adopt its fiscal 2024 operating and capital budgets at a meeting set for 3 p.m., Thursday.
Rigby and council members Opel Jones and David Yungmann voted against the amendment, which would have supplied the additional funds, while Liz Walsh and Deb Jung voted in favor.
Walsh, who co-sponsored the amendment with Jung, said the $2.7 million was intended to minimize some personnel cuts the school system had recommended to cover a $67.3 million budget gap.
“All of that $67 million that the school system asked for ... that’s all coming back next year,” said Walsh, a Democrat representing District 1. “It’s just going to be a bigger hole next year.”
At its final budget work session Tuesday, the Howard school board voted to adopt a budget-balancing “Scenario 7″ that avoids class size increases but makes a range of reductions to requested school personnel and services. Scenario 7 reduces the number of full-time equivalent new staff positions to 99 from more than 327 in the board’s February proposal and cuts requested expenditures by $37.3 million, including $4.8 million in special education.
“These have not been easy discussions or easy decisions. They’ve all come with various choices that we’ve had to make,” Chief Administrative Officer Jahantab Siddiqui said.
After the school board rejected a proposal to save $7.4 million by increasing class sizes and cutting more than 101 full-time equivalent staff positions, the board instead opted to cut a range of positions, including 13 new athletic trainers for all county high schools, five new elementary school reading specialists, eight new paraeducator positions for School Management and Instructional Leadership and various other positions.
While Scenario 7 initially proposed cutting the environmental educator position at the Howard County Conservancy, the board voted 6-0-1 to use grant funding to cover one social worker position and free up $110,000 for the conservancy position. Board member Jacky McCoy was the sole abstention.
The board ultimately voted 6-1 to approve Scenario 7, with McCoy voting against the proposal.
“I was concerned about losing the additional reading specialists, the situation with the staffing for the Nature Conservancy and the lack of clarity regarding the restorative justice position as it was presented during the work session,” McCoy said in a text message.
Siddiqui noted that Scenario 7 still covers a number of budget priorities, including $47.4 million in staff compensation increases, $2.5 million associated with opening Guilford Park High School in Jessup in August and $7.5 million for transportation costs related to implementation of new school start times. However, the plan relies on nearly $30 million in one-time school system funding sources, including $21 million in projected unassigned general fund balance, to cover the recurring costs.
“The reliance on one-time sources is a reflection that recurring Blueprint costs, the largest being mandated compensation increases, are growing faster than state and county revenues can afford and will create challenges for FY 2025 and beyond,” Martirano wrote in a May 22 memo to the board.
[ Howard school officials propose scaling back Blueprint plans to address $67.3M funding gap ]
Matirano first presented budget balancing scenarios May 1 to the County Council requesting additional county funding on top of Ball’s $47 million proposed increase, already the largest ever single-year increase in local funding for HCPSS.
Ball had repeatedly called the school board’s requested $110.5 million increase fiscally unattainable, but school officials maintained it was “not an aspirational budget” and was necessary to implement Blueprint for Maryland’s Future reforms and maintain the existing level of services.
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“It’s the same song and dance every year,” said District 5 representative Yungmann, the council’s only Republican. “We’ve got to figure out where the money’s going, how other school systems are managing to do it and why we can’t.”
At Wednesday’s budget session, council members urged the school system to be more proactive in planning its budget with the county government, particularly given the snowballing list of Blueprint-driven requirements. Martirano informed board members in a Sunday memo they would be at risk of losing state funding if they did not allocate $3.5 million toward supporting a Blueprint-mandated career counseling service, leaving staff to pull from additional unassigned fund balance.
“For nearly five years, we’ve pleaded and provided additional resources to HCPSS administration, urging them to establish a collaborative process that involves stakeholders in delivering an implementable budget,” Rigby said.
Walsh said that the original $67.3 million budget gap was far too big for the council to address on its own and tackling the Blueprint’s statutory funding requirements would require a more collaborative approach, such as the 12-member Blueprint Resources Planning Workgroup established by Ball in a May 17 executive order.
“We’ll definitely next year take a more proactive approach. It’s going to be the same Board of Education,” Walsh said. “We got to figure out a different path to take because this is not a good result.”
The public can attend Howard school board meetings in person at 10910 Clarksville Pike, Ellicott City, or watch online at https://www.hcpss.org/board/meetings/.