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Howard County school board adopts $918 million operating budget

After weeks of work sessions, contract negotiations and cost-saving measures, the Howard County Board of Education on Thursday unanimously adopted a $918.7 million operating budget for fiscal 2021.

“I know this has been a very difficult process,” said Chair Mavis Ellis at Thursday’s meeting. “We have been in a unique situation with the COVID-19 pandemic, and dollars have been limited for our school district.”

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The main increase in the fiscal 2021 budget from the previous year is $11.9 million and 106 teachers for special education. Superintendent Michael Martirano made special education funding a priority in the budget he sent to the board in January, stating the school system was “critically understaffed in special education.”

The focus on special education in the fiscal 2021 budget followed an emotional school board meeting in November, during which four special educators discussed the challenges they face due to a lack of staffing.

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Special education will get an increase from $120.3 million to $132.2 million, which is the second straight year the school board has increased funding for special education by approximately 10%.

“This budget reallocates funds to special education and makes much-needed progress to appropriately fund special education and to support our most vulnerable students,” member Christina Delmont-Small said.

Within its $918.7 million operating budget, the school board adopted funding in the amount of $620.3 million from the county, $282.6 million from the state, $660,000 in federal funding and $15.1 million from other sources. Other increases in the budget include transportation services for redistricting and three diversity, equity and inclusion positions.

The vote Thursday came three weeks after the County Council approved its budget May 27 and sent back a $910 million school system budget to the board, which totaled a $9.6 million increase from the fiscal 2020 budget. However, the budget was also $36.9 million less than what the school board had requested.

To make up that difference, the board and the school system used three different avenues to afford the $918.7 million budget: renegotiating teacher salaries, applying money from the school system’s general fund balance, making alterations in the county’s health fund and implementing a slew of smaller cuts.

The largest saving was $12.7 million by removing the negotiated pay raises for educators in the county. Last week, the school system suggested laying off educators by increasing class sizes during a work session, but the Board of Education and the Howard County Education Association later agreed to a renegotiated contract that removed the pay raises but didn’t result in teacher layoffs.

“I’m thrilled we were able to restore some of special education, pay the health fund deficit down a little bit and, most importantly, that we were able to save jobs,” Vice Chair Vicky Cutroneo said. “Collectively, that was our No. 1 priority, to save jobs, and we’ve been able to do that.”

While the renegotiation of the contract for the 2020-21 academic year does remove the teachers’ pay raises, it does not not impact their step increases based on the 2019-20 contract, meaning most educators will still receive a pay increase in 2020-21. The board and the teachers’ union came to the agreement June 11, and the union’s members approved it by a vote that ended Thursday afternoon.

“I know our educators are being asked to do more this year,” member Kirsten Coombs said. “We love you, and I wish we could find the money to increase your salaries.”

The discussion of increasing class sizes came four months after the board approved increasing them by one student, which saved $7.2 million in the fiscal 2021 budget but will not result in layoffs by shifting 104 educators to other positions that will be open mostly due to retirements.

“It absolutely killed me to increase class sizes,” Cutroneo said. “... I’m also sorry that we couldn’t meet the expectations of what our teachers deserve. It’s no reflection on the respect and gratitude, especially now, for what you’ve done and what you will continue to do.”

Another way the school system afforded the budget was by applying all $8 million of its general fund balance — unused money from previous years — to fiscal 2021. While the transfer is a decrease from the $12 million application of fund balance in fiscal 2020, the use of $8 million temporarily empties the fund and increases the overall budget from $910 million to $918 million. Of the $8 million, $5 million went toward preventing further cuts, while $3 million is going into a COVID-19 contingency reserve.

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According to Howard County Public School System Chief Administrative Officer Jahantab Siddiqui, the system is projecting to receive at least $4.2 million from the CARES Act — a federal law intended to address the economic fallout of the COVID-19 pandemic — but the exact number won’t be determined until the fall. That money, Siddiqui said, will go into the fund balance once it’s received.

The last big savings measure was $10.1 million for the school system’s health fund and insurance costs. A little more than $4 million of that money was saved due to updated health insurance estimates, while $6 million from the county to pay down the health fund deficit was deferred due to the coronavirus pandemic. In May, the County Council passed a resolution to spend $7.2 million to reduce the school system’s $39.2 million health and dental fund. In May, Siddiqui said the payment was the first “significant reduction” of the health fund that now sits at $32 million.

“We fully funded our benefits once again, three years in a row,” Martirano said to close Thursday’s meeting. “Remember, board members, we continue to tackle these really big problems we inherited. We should never find ourselves in a deficit, and we’ve been steadfast in reducing that year after year.”

Lastly, the school system found smaller savings compared to its proposed budget in February in several different areas. Some of those savings include:

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  • $2.4 million for removing high school media paraeducator positions and surplussing those educators while also slightly adjusting teacher ratios at the middle and high school levels
  • $1.3 million in transportation for redistricting by improving route efficiency and a slightly less expensive contract cost
  • $1.2 million for a central office hiring freeze
  • $840,000 in reduced custodial costs
  • $798,000 by ending the parochial school busing program, which allowed private school students to be transported by public school buses

In other business, the school board unanimously approved a $102.4 million capital budget for fiscal 2021, a $386.2 million capital improvement program for 2022-26 and a $761.8 million long-range master plan budget for 2021-30.

The 2021 fiscal year begins July 1.

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