Howard County Public School System Superintendent Michael Martirano on Tuesday proposed a fiscal 2024 operating budget of $1.14 billion, including a 16% increase in county funding that County Executive Calvin Ball called “unattainable.”
“The proposed public school county funding increase of $111.9 million is unfortunately unattainable and unrealistic at a time when enrollment remains significantly below pre-pandemic levels, and when there are so many competing priorities in many areas,” Ball said in a Wednesday news release.
The superintendent’s fiscal 2024 request, which covers all costs of daily school operations, represents a $108.5 million increase (10.5%) over the current budget and includes 326.6 full-time equivalent new staff positions, an increase of about 3.5%. The budget includes $785.2 million in recurring county funds and $348.4 million from the state, increases of about 16.2% and 8.5%, respectively.
For comparison, Ball said the average annual actual revenue increase of the entire county budget over the five years prior to the pandemic was $36.7 million. He said county public education spending had increased by an average of 3.4% during his first four years in office.
Although school system enrollment has hovered around 57,000 for the past several years, down from 58,878 in 2020, Martirano said new state mandates and a growing list of community needs necessitated a boost in county funding.
“This is not an aspirational budget, but one that has been thoughtfully considered through the exemplary work of system budget managers to identify our greatest needs,” he said.
Major priorities of Martirano’s proposed operating budget include increased employee salaries, special education and support staffing, opening the county’s 13th high school in Jessup this fall and implementation of a range of initiatives required under the Blueprint for Maryland’s Future legislation.
“Our primary focus as we constructed this thoughtful budget request is on the academic achievement and continued recovery of students following COVID-19,” Martirano said. “Every decision we made was done through this lens.”
The fiscal 2024 budget cycle marks Maritrano’s first since the school system eliminated its health and dental fund deficit, which peaked at nearly $40 million in fiscal 2019 and loomed large over the past several years’ budget conversations.
“The deficit itself will not be competing against other programmatic needs at the school system,” HCPSS chief administrative officer Jahantab Siddiqui said in December. “We can start talking about new expenditures that are going to add significantly more funding to us.”
Employee compensation totaled $47.9 million and accounted for 44.2% of the budget’s growth, by far the most of any single category. Included in the proposal are $11.98 million and 105.6 new positions for special education; $2.2 million and 42.6 positions, including administrators, teachers and maintenance staff, to open and operate high school 13; $1.2 million and 10 new positions to support student behavioral needs; and more than $800,000 and eight new positions, including security assistants, for school safety.
To account for ongoing bus driver vacancies, which stood at 85 in December, and anticipated changes to school start times for next school year, the Office of Student Transportation requested $7.3 million for bus contract changes and $250,000 for implementation of a new rider management system.
Much of the budget’s investment in staff salaries and resources derives from the Blueprint, a sweeping $3.8 billion legislation package to reform Maryland’s 24 public school systems during the next decade. Among other requirements, the Blueprint mandates expanded pre-kindergarten offerings for low-income households, salary boosts and a number of career-readiness interventions at the high school level.
To follow through on the law, the budget requests $3.2 million and nearly 60 full-time positions to expand pre-kindergarten and early childhood education services. An additional $3.1 million would cover Blueprint-mandated free tuition and support for students dual-enrolled at Howard Community College.
Martirano also stressed that the school system is the primary provider of meals and essential health services to thousands of county families living in poverty and homelessness. The rate of students participating in the Free and Reduced Meals Program has increased from 26.8% last school year to more than 30.1% as of Oct. 31. The budget proposal further expands the meal program and ensures that every school building has a nurse.
“We embrace this role because of our access to those in need and because we know that our staff will deliver the services better than most,” Martirano said. “It is the right thing to do.”
The superintendent’s proposal represents the first step in a months-long budget approval process. The Board of Education will hold public hearings on the budget at 7 p.m. on Jan. 26 and Feb. 6 and public work sessions on Feb. 1, 2, 8 and 14 at 1 p.m. and Feb. 6 at 2 p.m.
After the board votes to adopt the budget request on Feb. 16, it will go to the county executive, who can reduce but not increase the request. After review and approval by the County Council in the spring, the school board will adopt its final operating budget on May 25.
Martirano emphasized that the budget will require continued collaboration among the school system, county government and Maryland General Assembly to implement, but Ball signaled the initial ask was unachievable.
“The proposal of a 16.6% increase is an appealing wish list but is not a serious exercise in budgeting or planning given the resources or capacity of our taxpayers,” Ball said. “I am committed to working closely with Superintendent Martirano, our BOE, and our educators to make sure as many resources as possible go to education, while the needs of all other public services are fulfilled.”
To learn more about the fiscal 2024 budget process, visit hcpss.org/about-us/budgets/fy24/.