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Howard school board considering teacher layoffs, class-size increases to save money amid contract discussions

During work sessions Tuesday and Wednesday, the Howard County Board of Education grappled with possibly increasing class sizes and laying off teachers to create room in the fiscal 2021 operating budget.

Meanwhile, the board has also been in a fight with the teachers’ union during the last two weeks over attempts to further negotiate their 2020-21 contract.

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“I wish they knew more about their budget so they wouldn’t continually go to the largest pockets of money that have the most impact on the classroom,” said Colleen Morris, president of the Howard County Education Association, in an interview Wednesday.

The board faces a $30.9 million difference between the budget it requested in February and the budget that was sent back by the County Council on May 27.

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According to data presented at the work sessions Tuesday, an increase of one student per classroom would cause layoffs of 121 educators and save $7.2 million. Double that to two students per class, and the savings would be $14.6 million with layoffs of 242 educators.

“The worst situation to be in is having to lay off teachers,” said board member Chao Wu during a Tuesday work session. “That’s really bad. I believe no one wants to see that.”

The work sessions come amid a back-and-forth between the board and HCEA, which represents 7,400 educators, regarding the teachers’ union contract for the 2020-21 academic year. The two-year agreement, meant for the 2019-20 and 2020-21 school years, was agreed to last June.

The board is attempting to renegotiate the agreement that included pay increases for educators. The average pay increase for school system educators in the contract is 4% — 3% from the county and 1% from state funding related to the Kirwan Commission.

In the week leading up to the work sessions, which were not planned or announced until June 6, several county educators posted on social media about the board’s attempts to renegotiate the contract, while hundreds of teachers and community members emailed the board.

During a work session on Tuesday, David Larner, chief human resources and professional development officer for the school system, said the board is also in contact and has made similar requests with its other “bargaining units,” including Education Support Professionals, the Howard County Administrators Association and the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees.

The largest part of the school system’s operating budget, according to Chief Administrative Officer Jahantab Siddiqui, is money for staff salaries and benefits at 87% of the total budget. Overall, the pay increases for all school system employees, including administrators, teachers, special educators and their benefits, totals $24.9 million in the fiscal 2021 operating budget.

While the education budget approved by the County Council includes $7.9 million more than the previous fiscal year for “instructional salaries and wages,” the school system has other costs related to salaries and benefits in other line-item categories like administration, special education and “fixed charges” for benefits.

“When our partners say that instructional salaries were completely funded, that is not completely truthful,” member Kirsten Coombs said Tuesday. “... Now, we’re talking about whether or not we can fund our educators. That’s really unfortunate, but we need to make it clear that we didn’t get funded for these salaries.”

The possibility of augmenting class sizes comes about four months after the board approved increasing them by one student, saving $7.2 million and shifting 104 educators to other positions that will be open mostly due to retirements. If class sizes increase again, however, they will result in teacher layoffs, Larner said Tuesday.

Larner also said the school system is required under the Code of Maryland Regulations, or COMAR, to inform educators by Thursday that their jobs could be impacted. The state law requires the school system to provide notice within 15 days of receiving the budget from the County Council. As of 7 p.m. Wednesday, the school system had not yet notified any educators.

“We don’t know if this will impact math teachers, English teachers or social studies teachers, so we need to cast a wide net,” Larner said Tuesday.

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With the increase of one student per class from February, the average class sizes in Howard County for the 2020-21 school year are expected to be 24 in kindergarten, 26 in first and second grade, 32 in grades 3 through 5, 22.25 in middle school and 21.25 in high school.

“A plus-one increase would be detrimental, specifically to secondary education because staffing would need to be focused on [state] graduation requirements,” Anissa Dennis, chief school management and instructional leadership officer, said Tuesday. “This could impact many different classes. It could impact fine arts or languages or other types of classes.”

Throughout the work sessions, board members discussed the difficulties the county faces — a $32 million health fund deficit, a special education budget that many claim is “underfunded” and the coronavirus pandemic that has hampered school boards and local governments across the country.

Back in February, the board approved its $947.8 million budget for the 2021 fiscal year, which planned to increase funds for special education, teacher salaries and transportation services.

Of that $947.8 million, $651.2 million was proposed to come from the county, while the rest would come from the state and federal government. The board’s plan of $947.8 million was $46.5 million more than its operating budget in the 2020 fiscal year. By percentage, the requested increase — approximately 5.2% — would have been akin to the 5.9% increase given to the school system for the 2020 fiscal budget, which was the highest percentage increase in the last decade.

County Executive Calvin Ball then submitted his budget for the school system in April, which went through the County Council and was approved May 27.

Ball’s budget had an operating budget for the school system of $910.9 million — $620.3 million from the county and the rest from the state and federal government. That caused a $30.9 million difference between what the school board requested and what the County Council sent back after accounting for the $6 million contribution from the county toward the school system’s health fund deficit that has been pushed back amid the coronavirus pandemic.

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Still, the budget provides more money than required by maintenance of effort and is a $9.6 million increase from last year’s budget.

In an interview Wednesday, county government officials expressed displeasure with board members for their verbiage regarding their budget situation.

“One thing I’ve seen is this insinuation that anything less than the Board of Education’s proposed budget is a ‘cut,’ ” said Chief of Staff Sameer Sidh. “When they propose something that’s more of an aspirational budget, and we’re communicating what is realistic on our revenue expectations, I would characterize it as something very different than a ‘cut.’ ”

“I don’t understand,” said Holly Sun, the county’s budget director, “why with 2% to 4% growth you have to cut staff or services and the only way to make it work is to have double-digit growth. In my professional life, I can’t understand that argument.”

Superintendent Michael Martirano said Wednesday that more work sessions are “definitely” needed and will be announced Thursday. The adoption of the budget, which was pushed back from May 28 to Thursday, has been moved again. After recommendations from the school system, the board will no longer vote on the budget Thursday and will instead adopt it no later than June 18.

“We knew this day would come. This is no surprise to anyone,” said member Christina Delmont-Small. “... I don’t think it’s fair for anyone — our employees, educators, community, students and parents — that we get to the 11th hour and then we make these shooting-from-the-hip decisions and we end up with ramifications down the line that we did not have a chance to understand.”

The school board has a regular meeting at 3:30 p.m. Thursday.

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