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Howard school board approves $776.3 million budget request

The Howard County Board of Education on Tuesday approved a $776.3 million operating budget request, $4.4 million less than the original proposal from Superintendent Renee Foose as school officials were told it would be unlikely that they receive full funding.

In January, Foose proposed a nearly $780.8 million operating budget for the school system, which included a 4.2 percent increase in county funding to accommodate for growing enrollment; school system enrollment next year is projected to reach an all-time high.

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But as the Board of Education navigated four work sessions and a public hearing over the last month, school officials were notified that full-funding of the budget request from the county would be unlikely.

Foose and Budget Director Beverly Davis instructed the board to begin preparing for funding at the maintenance of effort level — $11.5 million less than what was included in her original proposal.

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In a 5-2 vote Tuesday, the board voted to trim $4.4 million in funding across multiple departments, including funds for conferences, equipment replacement, general supplies, temporary employment and travel.

"We always want more, we always want more in this budget," Board Chair Janet Siddiqui said after the vote. "Sometimes, it's just not a reality."

With an additional $1.4 million in state funding — the school system had expected to receive less money in its budget preparations — and the $4.4 million cut Tuesday, the board is sending $5.7 million over the maintenance of effort threshold.

"This budget is a maintenance of effort budget, yet with a few minor requests for program continuation and needs of our most vulnerable students," Siddiqui said.

Board members Cindy Vaillancourt and Bess Altwerger voted against the budget.

Altwerger supported the superintendent's efforts to protect staffing positions and keeping class sizes as they are now, but said she was disappointed with what she believes was a lack of opportunity for public input during budget work sessions.

"Furthermore, I feel that when input was provided by the community, by educators and by parents, I saw very little evidence that that input was taken into serious consideration during these deliberations," she said, particularly noting the support for kindergarten and media center paraprofessionals.

Sandie French applauded Foose and school staff for their foresight to offer the early retirement program and to prevent any staffing reductions or furlough days in this budget.

"Our precious people may be doing something different next year, but they're going to be here with us," she said.

Ann De Lacy said this budget is in the "collective good" of the school system.

"Nobody lost jobs, nobody is, at this point, being furloughed, nobody's health care benefits are being cut, but our children are being educated," she said.

Ellen Flynn Giles cautioned that despite the board cutting its budget request, she isn't convinced the school system will receive the entirety of its request because the county just won't have the money.

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"The fiscal crisis is real. Maryland has not recovered from the recession, we're seeing continued downturn in federal employment," she said.

The budget request now heads to the county executive and county council offices for deliberation as part of the county's budget.

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