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Despite financial struggles due to coronavirus, Howard schools are ready to move forward with budget season

The Howard County Public School System and the Board of Education are ready to work over the next few months to close a $30 million gap in its fiscal 2021 operating budget, despite financial uncertainty due to the coronavirus pandemic.

“I still have to accelerate fully to the floor to solve all problems in the school system [despite coronavirus],” Howard schools Superintendent Michael Martirano said in an interview Tuesday. “My focus continues to rest on redistricting and the health fund deficit.”

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Howard County Executive Calvin Ball released his $1.78 billion proposed operating budget Monday evening, including a $13.1 million increase — or a 2.2.% increase — in funding to the school system over this fiscal year’s budget.

Ball is proposing to fund the school system $620.3 million for fiscal 2021, which is $30 million less than the school board requested.

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“During this unprecedented time, we recognized how critical it is to ensure core county services and support priorities,” Ball said in a statement Monday.

Martirano had proposed a $964.1 million budget in January that the school board slightly trimmed to a $947.8 million spending plan in February. The plan sought $657.1 million from the county, $282.6 million from the state, $410,000 from federal funding and $7.5 million from other sources.

The school board’s spending plan included a class-size increase and a phase-in approach to bolster special education funding.

This year’s required maintenance of effort level — a value that demonstrates the level of local and state funding remains relatively constant from year to year for the school system — is $10.4 million. Ball’s proposal would fund $2.7 million above the required level. The plan sent in by the school board to Ball asked for $33.6 million above the required maintenance of effort level.

“I’m pleased that Dr. Ball has provided maintenance of effort and pleased he provided $2.7 million above [maintenance of effort]. Quite frankly, I wasn’t even expecting that would occur,” Martirano said.

“We need to preserve the basic supports for the school system to function. I think every variable [for budget cuts] is on the table again. This is a different time now, [and] we have to examine our priorities.”

School board member Chao Wu said, “With such a dramatic gap between the need and the reality, all stakeholders, including the school, the county government, the County Council and the community, need to prioritize our spending and change our spending habit.”

Martirano has recommended increasing special education funding by $15.1 million in one year to address November testimony from special education staff members where they warned they were reaching a breaking point because of underfunding and understaffing by the county.

The school board’s plan looks to phase in the $15.1 million funding with $11 million in fiscal 2021 and $4.1 million in fiscal 2022.

“We have the gap that we have to close, but I can’t just isolate special education,” Martirano said. “My value is to ensure our most vulnerable children are supported. … I am reticent to look into any reductions that will affect the students who need the most support.”

The school system’s obligations for fiscal 2021 include $21.5 million for negotiated salary increases and $4.8 million to fully fund the health fund and benefits requirements, according to the school board’s requested operating budget.

Colleen Morris, president of the teacher’s union, said, “We recognize that our county’s fiscal picture is different than what it was only a few weeks ago, and we look forward to working with the County Council and Board of Education to recognize the important role that educators in our school system will continue to play — either online or in a classroom.”

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Despite the financial struggles ahead, Martirano said he is devoted to continuing to pay down the school system’s historic health fund deficit that he has been chipping away at for nearly three years.

The $39.2 million deficit — rooted in an imbalance in the school system’s employee health and dental fund, resulting from money being taken across seven years to pay for various expenses — is expected to go down to $29.5 million from a county-approved transfer of $7.2 million from the school’s unassigned general fund and $2.5 million in end-of-year fiscal 2020 cost savings.

“From an audit standpoint, we are feeling really positive with that level of decrease,” Jahantab Siddiqui, schools chief administrative officer, said in an interview Tuesday.

The $2.5 million in end-of-year cost savings may come from the fully funded health fund due to employees delaying or canceling elective surgeries because of COVID-19 and from other claims data, Siddiqui said.

“Those two words, ‘Martirano’ and ‘deficit,’ are incongruent,” Martirano said. “We are still like a dog with a bone focused on that.”

A $36.6 million operating budget is recommended for Howard Community College, representing less than a $1 million increase from last year.

“I recognize the county executive faced a challenging task in building the fiscal year 2021 operating budget. Howard Community College is already experiencing the impact of the coronavirus pandemic on its budget this fiscal year,” HCC President Kathleen B. Hetherington said.

“During this unprecedented time, HCC faculty and staff have done a herculean job in transitioning to remote classes and services, and our support of students has never wavered. Thank you to County Executive Ball for offering much-needed funding to assist faculty and staff as they educate Howard County families for the workforce of the future.”

The school board will meet April 30 for its first work session to tackle the budget proposal.

“April 30 is the first time the Board of Education takes their first bite at this. … Now that we know the amount, [we will look at] where we need to whittle away,” Martirano said.

“I am operating on eggshells because there are still [economic] variables with COVID-19,” he added.

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.

The County Council is slated to adopt the entire operating budget May 27, with the school board adopting its operating, capital and capital improvement program budgets May 28.

The county’s budget year begins July 1.

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