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Howard superintendent’s proposed $964 million budget looks to address special education staffing

Howard County schools Superintendent Michael Martirano is proposing an operating budget of $964 million for fiscal 2021 that addresses special education staffing, the health fund deficit and new general education positions.

The $964.1 million budget proposal presented at Thursday’s Board of Education meeting is 7% larger than this year’s adopted spending plan, requesting $670.4 million from the county, $285.6 million from the state — including $7.8 million from the Kirwan Commission — and $8 million from additional sources.

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Martirano presented an aspirational budget of nearly $1 billion in December 2018 for the current fiscal year. Six months later, after a contentious budget season including position cuts, the school board adopted an $894 million operating budget.

While the requested funding is necessary to “maintain current [education] service levels,” Martirano said in a letter Thursday, his “obligation” is to make notice of the programmatic and service gaps that exist within the school system.

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This year, Martirano included accompanying documents with his proposals, showcasing the nearly $70 million worth of equity gaps in the school system, including social workers, technology teachers and special education staff. An additional document outlined all of the cuts made to the operating budget in the past two years.

Howard’s 77-school district has nearly 59,000 students and 8,400 full- and part-time staff for the 2019-20 academic year. An expected enrollment growth of 773 students across the system is projected for the next academic year.

Martirano is recommending to increase the special education budget by $15.1 million to fund nearly 217 new positions to address staffing shortages, nonpublic placement tuition, contracted labor costs and other services.

Martirano is proposing to establish an in-house hiring process for special education temporary staff, instead of using outside agencies to hire contracted employees. This process is anticipated to produce annual savings.

In November, special education staff members testified during a school board meeting where they warned that special educators in the school system are reaching a breaking point because of underfunding and understaffing by the county.

“Special education is a priority for my FY2021 budget,” Martirano said at Thursday’s meeting. “Several of our special education teachers courageously stepped forward and described the difficulties they experienced in their roles.

“My heart ached as they spoke. ... We are critically understaffed in special education and this situation is driving many of our educators to the breaking point.”

Martirano is also proposing to bolster general education staffing with nearly 59 new positions to support anticipated student growth.

With administrative staff, he is proposing three new positions be added to the Office of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion, and establishing a data security team. Funds for these positions were found by budget-neutral realignments, including eliminating four vacant job openings.

The proposal's $670.4 million county request is an increase of $63.2 million from what the county provided in the fiscal 2020 operating budget. The increase reflects $43.8 million requested over maintenance of effort, $10.4 million required by maintenance of effort and a one-time request of $9 million to pay down the health fund deficit, part of Martirano’s plan to eliminate the deficit by fiscal 2022.

Maintenance of effort is a value that demonstrates the level of local and state funding that remains relatively constant from year to year for the school system.

In his letter, Martirano wrote that the school system recognizes there is a “gap between this proposal and the available funding anticipated” from the county. His recommendation reflects a 10.4% increase in county funding, while county staff has indicated in conversations with the school system to expect a 2% to 3% increase.

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“I look forward to working with the board as we articulate our request to the county and the state and then working with our elected officials on both levels to ensure we received the funding we need for our students,” Martirano said during Thursday’s meeting.

The proposed budget includes fully funding negotiation agreements for all bargaining units with an overall $24.7 million increase and does not anticipate a class size increase.

“We are looking forward to another challenging budget season and working collaboratively with the county executive and the County Council,” board Chairwoman Mavis Ellis said.

Budget hearings are scheduled for Jan. 16 and 28, with school board work sessions throughout January. The board is expected to adopt the budget Feb. 13 before it moves to the county executive and County Council.

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