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Howard superintendent’s proposed $932 million budget adds staff in special education, mental health

Howard County schools Superintendent Michael Martirano is proposing an operating budget of $932 million for the next fiscal year that adds more than 130 teachers and staff to address special education needs, expected enrollment growth and mental health services.

The $932.4 million budget proposal for the 2022 fiscal year presented at Thursday’s Board of Education meeting is $13.8 million — or 1.5% — larger than this year’s adopted spending plan.

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The proposed budget, which in past years has been trimmed by Howard County Executive Calvin Ball and the County Council, is requesting $642.4 million from the county and $290 million from the state and federal government.

In prior years, Martirano’s proposed budgets have been less practical than this year’s spending plan. 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 year 2020 was reduced by more than $100 million.

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“These investments are essential to maintain and sustain what our system has built up over the years to provide an excellent education and secure the well-being of our students and staff,” Martirano said. “My [fiscal year 2022] budget proposal is not aspirational but aims to judiciously and prudently request the funding needed to keep our system stable and respond to the needs of our students.”

The superintendent’s budget is the first step in a five-month process, which includes public hearings, working sessions and adoption by the school board. Ultimately, Ball and the County Council decide how much money from the county is allocated to the school system for the 2022 fiscal year. The superintendent and the Board of Education then get to decide in late May or early June how to distribute the money.

The budget, which does not use money from the district’s fund balance, doesn’t include a reduction in staff or services, which almost happened in fiscal year 2020 when some paraeducators and support teachers were on the chopping block. Class sizes, under the proposed budget, will not increase as they did in fiscal year 2021, and teacher pay is listed under the scale used for the last two years as the teachers union and the school board are negotiating a new contract.

In the spending plan, the health and dental fund, which has beset the school system for the last five years, would be funded for the fourth straight year to prevent the $18.7 million deficit from growing. The deficit was at $39.2 million after the 2019 fiscal year, but the school system cut it in half last year.

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In total, 137 new positions are included in the budget, as staff compensation and benefits remains the largest component of the budget at 86%.

Howard County schools Superintendent Michael Martirano reflects on the redistricting plan and process, one day after the Board of Education voted to approve it. 11-22-2019
Howard County schools Superintendent Michael Martirano reflects on the redistricting plan and process, one day after the Board of Education voted to approve it. 11-22-2019 (Ulysses Muñoz / Baltimore Sun/The Baltimore Sun)

One of the biggest investments is once again to special education services. 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 is the fifth straight budget under Martirano, who became the district’s superintendent in 2017, in which special education has received an increase in funding of more than $4 million. From fiscal year 2017 to fiscal year 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.

“We are critically understaffed in special education and must continue to address this understaffing through our budget,” he said.

Martirano’s plan also includes 54.8 new general education positions, seven mental health jobs, five more technology workers and four and a half reading specialists.

The additions to general education are in partly in anticipation for an enrollment growth of 380 students over what was projected for the 2020-21 school year in the fiscal year 2021 budget. The district is projecting an enrollment of 58,522 for the 2021-22 school year, which includes both new students moving into the county and the expectation that students who have left the system due to virtual learning amid the coronavirus pandemic will return.

Martirano said the school system’s enrollment right now is 56,300 — down about 1,200 from last year. The drop is concerning, Martirano said, since funding from the state is tied to the prior year’s enrollment. The enrollment decrease could cost the school system $24.7 million in state and county funding, although Martirano expects the state government to prevent funding decreases due to the pandemic.

“Through our recent discussions with state and local officials, we anticipate that the state will take action to hold school districts harmless from revenue declines due to the temporary enrollment reductions,” he said

The seven mental health positions include three school psychologists, a social worker, a school nurse, a counselor and a mental health support professional at Homewood Center.

The additional technology staff, as well as an extra $1 million in the budget, will support the district’s goal of having a one-to-one student-to-device ratio, an initiative that was spurred by the coronavirus pandemic. Every elementary school student and the majority secondary students currently have a Chromebook laptop, with the goal that all students will have one by the end of the school year.

Martirano said the school system will have to devote $1 million every year for the next five years to maintain an even ratio and have a sufficient number of backup devices.

Public hearings for the budget are scheduled for Feb. 2 and Feb. 16 (both at 7 p.m.), and school board work sessions will be held on Jan. 28 and Feb. 2, 4, 9, 16 and 18 (all at 1 p.m.). The board is expected to adopt the budget and send it to Ball on Feb. 25. A final adoption by the board is projected for May 27.

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