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‘A very complex and challenging budget’: Howard schools superintendent breaks down proposed spending plan

Every budget season is hard.

School district superintendents, along with county and city leaders, will always point to the difficulties in each year’s fiscal budget. Now, however, when Howard County schools Superintendent Michael Martirano says the fiscal 2022 budget season is “challenging,” the word carries extra weight.

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It’s not hard to imagine why.

The coronavirus pandemic shuttered public school buildings last March, and the system’s approximately 57,000 students and more than 10,000 staff members have been operating outside of school buildings since April. The district has incurred $31 million in expenses related to the pandemic — $12 million more than it received in grant funding. And now, the system, which is the largest employer in the county, is preparing to roll out its hybrid learning model starting March 1.

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“This is a very complex and challenging budget,” Martirano said. “This is one of the most challenging because of the unintended complexities built into this ... and I don’t want to do anything that creates additional challenges after COVID is over.”

The $932.4 million budget that Martirano proposed on Jan. 21, which requests $642.4 million from the county and $290 million from the state and federal government, is still months away from being officially adopted. Howard residents will have the opportunity to participate in public hearings this month, and the Board of Education will hold work sessions and adopt the budget Feb. 25.

Howard County Executive Calvin Ball and the County Council ultimately decide how much money the school system gets from the county’s overall budget. The superintendent and the school board then get to officially decide in late May or early June how to distribute the money.

While the numbers in the budget will change over the coming months, the challenges won’t. Here are the key aspects of Martirano’s fiscal 2022 operating budget:

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‘Pragmatic’ proposal

This is Martirano’s fifth budget as superintendent of the Howard County Public School System. He took over in May 2017 in the middle of the fiscal 2018 budget season and has led the process since.

Last fiscal year, he proposed a $964 million plan that was trimmed by $46 million. The year before, his nearly $1 billion proposal for fiscal 2020 was reduced by more than $100 million.

The $932.4 million proposed budget for fiscal 2022 is only $13.8 million — or 1.5% — larger than this fiscal year’s adopted spending plan. Martirano said this plan is both “pragmatic and fundable.”

“The aspirational budget I presented [for fiscal 2020] was done by design to be the baseline to show the community and our county where I see those gaps, presenting that as a road map and using that to build on in future budgets,” he said. “This year, being aware of the uncertainty of revenues, the challenges with COVID ... I have presented a very realistic, pragmatic budget that still builds slightly toward that aspirational budget but is also respectful of the resources that we are being told about from the county and state in revenue.”

Martirano said any significant cuts will cause “pain” to the school system.

In the past three fiscal years, the district has cut $30 million in services, including ending the pre-kindergarten-through-sixth grade world language program in fiscal 2019, removing about 150 support professionals, reading specialists and technology teachers in fiscal 2020, and increasing class sizes in fiscal 2021.

“There has been an incredible amount cut in my tenure to balance these budgets,” Martirano said. “This year, I’m feeling extremely pinched. We’ve gone deep in previous years, and I don’t have a lot of flexibility with where I would offer those cuts without further pain to the school system.”

Special education

The headline topic in Martirano’s proposed budgets the past few years has been special education funding. That’s no different with this year’s proposed spending plan.

The superintendent’s proposal would add 70.7 educators to support an expected 5,582 special education students, up slightly from the 2020-21 school year. The additional staff will cost $5.4 million.

The increase would be the fifth straight budget under Martirano in which special education has received an increase in funding of more than $4 million. From fiscal 2017 to fiscal 2021, the school system’s special education funding increased by about 6% per year compared to 2% average annual growth for the overall operating budget.

In November 2019, four special educators in Howard County testified to the school board that special educators were reaching a breaking point because of under-staffing by the county. The next fiscal year, the approved operating budget included 106 special education teachers.

“In my aspirational budget, in my budgets the last two years, I put more funding in for special education that was cut through the process,” Martirano said. “But, in the last five years, there’s close to a $38 million increase in special education. That’s my way of catching up to a level that has been woefully under-supported in previous years.”

Mental health

The budget also includes seven mental health positions that will partly address what Martirano expects to be an increase in support needed for students whenever full-time in-person learning begins next school year.

The positions are three school psychologists, a social worker, a school nurse, a counselor and a mental health support professional at Homewood Center. Martirano also said the district will use future budget savings and potential federal and state grants to support additional resources in mental health next school year.

“School is more than just a curriculum; it’s a total development of a child’s well-being,” he said. “During this time, many of our young people are really facing the challenges of the lack of the social-emotional development process that comes naturally with interactions with teachers and schools. I have a personal focus on mental health challenges to make sure we front-load our supports for our kids.”

Technology

One of the “unintended positive consequences” of virtual learning, Martirano said, was the speed in which the district was forced to purchase Chromebook laptops to assist in online learning.

Now, every elementary school student and half the school system’s secondary students have devices. By the end of the school year, every student in the district is expected to have a Chromebook.

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When students return to school, the benefits of the technology are expected to continue with in-person learning as well. That’s why Martirano’s budget includes an increase of $3.3 million in technology spending, which includes five new positions, $400,000 for instructional software, $1.5 million for bandwidth and cybersecurity, and $1 million to sustain the district’s one-to-one student-to-device ratio. The $1 million toward Chromebooks will be an annual expenditure.

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“We are shifting the instructional delivery,” he said. “That’s not just for now, but for the future, too.”

Health fund deficit

When Martirano started as superintendent in 2017, he learned the system had an employee health fund deficit of nearly $40 million.

“I couldn’t comprehend how that could’ve happened,” he said.

The deficit has beset the system ever since, from increasing challenges in the budget to the adverse opinion from an auditor that threatened the county’s AAA bond rating.

In fiscal 2020, the system reduced the deficit by $20.5 million — from $39.2 million to $18.7 million — and Martirano’s fiscal 2022 budget funds the health and dental fund for the fourth straight year following deficits in six of the previous seven years.

“We provide benefits for over 20,000 individuals. We are the No. 1 employer in the county, and we can’t play with that. They should never be put at risk in the health benefit area at all,” Martirano said. “... The mismanagement of that process created many challenges for me as superintendent. If that money had been managed properly, think of what we could’ve done for our kids.”

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