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Howard school board adopts $942 million budget, including Digital Education Center and more special educators

Ending a second budget season amid the coronavirus pandemic, the Howard County Board of Education on Thursday adopted a $942 million operating budget for the upcoming fiscal year.

The fiscal 2022 budget is $24 million more than the 2021 spending plan, allowing for an increase in special education staff, student support personnel and a new Digital Education Center.

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“These are never easy processes,” Howard County schools Superintendent Michael Martirano said after the budget adoption. “I thank our county executive and the County Council for their partnership, the allocation of additional dollars and the trust they have in [the board] as an elected body to do the right thing.”

Within its $942.6 million spending plan, the school board adopted funding in the amount of $640.8 million from the county, $282.5 million from the state, $410,000 in federal funding and $18.9 million from other sources — including $12 million from the school system’s fund balance.

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The budget passed 5-1 (student member Zach Koung can’t vote on budget matters, and member Vicky Cutroneo was absent for personal reasons). The lone dissenter was member Christina Delmont-Small, who voted no on all budget motions.

Delmont-Small disagreed with the board’s use of fund balance money for recurring costs rather than one-time costs without the district having a plan to fund the “ongoing expenditures” in the future, which she believes violates board policy. The board also utilized money from its fund balance in fiscal years 2020 and 2021.

“I’m happy our funding authorities provided additional funding. However, it’s not enough, and it’s created — in my opinion — the problem of utilizing the fund balance, taking one-time money and using it for recurring funds,” Delmont-Small said. “I’m incredibly concerned that next year ... we are going to have an even harder time than we did this year. We’re going to have to figure out how we’re going to make up the gap that we’ve created by using the fund balance.”

The vote Thursday came one day after the County Council approved its $2.18 billion operating and capital budgets and sent back a $930.6 million spending plan for the school system. The board’s decision to use $12 million from the its $13.2 million fund balance — unused money from previous years — increased the budget total to $942.6 million.

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One of the main topics of discussion this budget season revolved around funding from the county and maintenance of effort, a state formula that dictates the minimum amount of money the county must provide to the school system.

In April, Howard County Executive Calvin Ball released his budget proposal, which included an increase of $12.5 million compared to last year’s approved spending plan but was also $37.6 less than what the school board had requested. Most of that increase, though, was a one-time use of $10 million toward the district’s health fund deficit.

However, in mid-May, Ball amended his budget to include $4 million more for the school system, and on Wednesday the County Council approved an additional $4 million — $2.5 million toward the district’s health fund deficit and $1.5 million for the operating budget.

Due to the coronavirus pandemic and the fluctuating enrollments of school systems across Maryland, the state legislature passed a bill earlier this year to not hold districts accountable for enrollment declines this academic year. That means the original projection from last fall for maintenance of effort based on the school system’s decreased 2020-21 enrollment was about $18 million less than the actual figure of $620.3 million, which is calculated based on the district’s enrollment in 2019-20.

The county’s funding for the school system ended up being $20.5 million more than last year and $10.5 million above maintenance of effort — the largest in seven years.

“Education is still our top priority, with historically high funding to the school system, community college and library system,” Ball said in a statement Wednesday.

“This is a tough and sometimes emotional process,” Board of Education Chair Chao Wu said. “I thank County Executive Dr. Ball and the County Council for the extra funding for us. … We need to continue to advocate for our school system and how we’re going to sustain and grow.”

While every budget process is strenuous, this year’s was no match for the challenges posed last spring. The fiscal 2021 budget process started before COVID-19 had taken hold and ended in the early months of the pandemic after the virus caused a shutdown of schools. Last year, the board renegotiated its contract with the teachers union and removed pay raises, increased class sizes by an average of one student and emptied its fund balance.

A similarity between the fiscal 2022 budget and the past few years’ spending plans is an increase in special education staff. The school board added 106 special education jobs last year, and this year’s budget includes 70.7 new special education positions.

“What you passed tonight allows us to address the critical shortages of special education,” Martirano said.

The budget includes 27 pooled positions, which Jahantab Siddiqui, the district’s chief administrative officer, said are to “support enrollment changes and fluctuations while maintaining class sizes.” The spending plan also adds 20 student support positions, including 11 school counselors, five social workers, three pupil personnel workers and a school psychologist. Five additional technology positions and four and a half reading specialist roles were added as well.

“This was a hard budget, and while we’re not sitting here figuring out if we’re cutting class sizes or having to change our teachers’ workloads, we did make some substantial changes,” Board of Education Vice Chair Jen Mallo said. “I think we’re headed in the right path. We made an important commitment to mental health.”

Although the Digital Education Center, a virtual learning program irrespective of the pandemic, is funded in the budget, it is much smaller than what was originally proposed. When the initiative was included in the board’s proposed budget in February, it included a total of 75 teacher, paraeducator and administrator positions. In the adopted budget, however, only 12 positions were added for the center.

Other reductions in the spending plan — compared with the board’s proposal in February, not the fiscal 2021 budget — include not adding designated general education staff due to the district’s enrollment decline during COVID-19 and not fully eliminating the health fund deficit. The budget does not include staff reductions, program cuts or increased class sizes, while it funds the contracted step increases for the system’s educators. Staff salaries and benefits make up about 86% of the district’s operating budget.

The budget also fully funds the district’s projected health care costs for the fourth straight fiscal year, something the district failed to do in multiple budgets before Martirano’s tenure that began in 2017. The failure in the early and mid-2010s led to the nearly $40 million health and dental fund deficit, which has beset the district since, threatening the county’s AAA bond rating in 2019 and leading to programmatic and class size increases in schools. The deficit, which has been reduced by $33 million in the past year, is now $6.2 million.

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In other business, the school board approved its fiscal 2022 capital budget, capital improvement plan and long-range master plan.

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The board approved a $90.4 million capital budget, including $57 million from the county and $33 million in state funding, for the continuation of the Talbott Springs Elementary replacement, the Hammond High renovation and the construction of the county’s 13th high school in Jessup.

The board also approved a $373 million capital improvement program for fiscal years 2023 to 2027 and a $926 million long-range master plan for 2022 to 2031. The plans include the renovations of Dunloggin Middle, Oakland Mills Middle and Centennial High, and the construction of two new elementary schools (the 43rd and 44th in the county) later this decade and a 14th high school, which could be in Elkridge.

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