The Howard County Public School System submitted its initial plan Wednesday for implementing the Blueprint for Maryland’s Future, a landmark piece of state legislation that aims to overhaul the public education system during the next decade.
The school system’s Blueprint coordinator, Timothy Guy, said all Blueprint initiatives are funded, but not to the extent needed. The school system must rely on an increase in county funding to realize its plan, he said.
“Everything [under the Blueprint] has funding tied to it in some way, shape or form,” Guy said. “I would just say that most things are not fully funded because of the fact that we have a local ask that is going to be larger that probably will not be fully funded.”
Major highlights of the school system’s plan, which covers fiscal years 2022 through 2024, includes free dual enrollment at Howard Community College and other career preparedness programs for high schoolers as well as expanded full-day prekindergarten services for low-income students.
As part of its fiscal 2024 operating budget request last month, the Howard school board asked for a $110 million (16.4%) increase in county funds, a level County Executive Calvin Ball said was “fiscally unattainable,” citing the fact that Howard’s public education spending grew by an average of 3.4% during his first four years in office.
“It’s our duty as an administration to review [HCPSS] budgetary requests in line with what is in statute with required Blueprint funding and mandates,” said Yousuf Ahmad, the county government’s senior adviser for education policy and performance. “We’re going through that exercise now.”
Ahmad said the proposed budget increase is above anything the county can currently afford and that there are competing interests in public safety, transportation, government operations and other sectors. The county executive will submit his own budget in April to the County Council for review, with final adoption by the school board set for May.
School officials say the range of Blueprint programs necessitates more per pupil spending, even as the district’s enrollment is projected to remain below the pre-pandemic high of 57,406. During a Feb. 1 budget work session, HCPSS Executive Director of Budget Darin Conforti warned that while the Blueprint increased state funding based on new per-student expenditures, the law did not require counties to increase their funding by the same per-pupil calculation.
All 24 Maryland school districts were required to submit implementation plans by Wednesday. Submissions can be viewed by the public on the State Department of Education’s website.
School systems will submit a second plan covering fiscal years 2025 through 2027 in March 2024.
The Blueprint is divided into five programmatic pillars: early childhood education, high-quality and diverse teachers and leaders, college and career readiness, more resources for students to be successful, and governance and accountability.
A seven-member Accountability and Implementation Board interprets Blueprint policy and has the power to withhold state funding if it feels a certain mandate is not being carried out to its satisfaction.
While the Blueprint sets certain deadlines, such as requiring $60,000 starting salaries for all state teachers by July 1, 2026, it’s up to the school districts to plan how to attain those benchmarks, which may require hiring new staff to help manage the initiatives.
“However you get there is really up to you,” Guy said. “It’s kind of a choose your own adventure.”
Guy said that with a $56,228 minimum teacher salary for fiscal 2023, Howard is well positioned to reach the 2026 target as well as a 10% salary increase from 2019 required by June 2024. Salary increases accounted for about 44% of the proposed operating budget’s growth.
A key component of the plan is the expansion of free full-day prekindergarten services for 3- and 4-year-olds whose parents meet income eligibility requirements. The plan aims to increase the number of public school prekindergarten slots from 700 to 1,220 and the number of private slots from 368 to 374 for next school year.
In order to reduce the burden on public school space and give parents more settings to choose from, the Blueprint required 45% of Howard’s prekindergarten slots to come from private providers next year. But the plan states meeting the private slot threshold will be a challenge and that the school system will request a waiver from MSDE on the mandate.
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“Physical space is definitely a limitation,” said Guy, who says HCPSS is planning to use Recreation and Parks space in some elementary schools, and to convert the vacant Faulkner Ridge Center into a preschool.
The implementation plan also lays out a variety of programs to help get students college and career ready. HCPSS students can now take an unlimited number of classes at Howard Community College for free, after the State Department of Education issued guidance in the fall stating that the Blueprint required districts to cover all applicable tuition costs.
About 1,200 high school students are currently enrolled in classes at HCC and the school system requested that dual enrollment funding increase from $1.1 million to $4.3 million in fiscal 2024 to keep pace with the expected demand.
Starting in the fall, the Accountability and Implementation Board is also mandating that public schools cover all Advanced Placement exam fees, which HCPSS is anticipating will cost $660,000. During the next several years, students will have access to new Career and Technical Education courses, including computer science and medical pathways.
The accountability board is expected to formally approve the implementation plan in June after providing feedback to the school system. Guy said HCPSS is also forming a Blueprint advisory group composed of teachers, administrators and community members to help with planning and input.
Guy stressed that the school board’s proposed operating budget is not aspirational, and that additional county funding is needed to both maintain existing services and roll out Blueprint initiatives.
“If we’re not fully funded in those spaces, we have kind of two choices,” he said. “We can reduce the number of students that can participate in a specific pathway or we can repurpose other operational dollars to then cover the costs that we’re seeing under Blueprint.”