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Howard school board suspends citizen budget review committee

When the Howard County Board of Education begins to ponder Superintendent Renee Foose's budget proposal in coming weeks, they won't be receiving input from a longstanding citizens committee tasked with combing through the proposal.

In September, the board voted 6-1 to suspend the operating budget review committee for one year as it undergoes a performance audit requested by Foose.

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At the September board meeting, the superintendent and some board members questioned the value of the current committee format, particularly with the zero-based budgeting approach installed by Foose last year.

With the superintendent's budget proposal set to be released Thursday and the board scheduled to deliberate on it through February, Board Chairwoman Janet Siddiqui reiterated Monday that the board would like to redefine the committee for its new method of building the budget.

"We want a process, a charter for this committee that is going to be valuable to the member as well as valuable to the board," she said.

She added that the board has no plans to organize a committee this year, but is considering making this a year-round committee instead of just a two to three month assignment.

Siddiqui acknowledged that the committee has lost members over the years and the board has sometimes faced challenges in filling the committee.

Siddiqui's board colleague Cindy Vaillancourt, who cast the lone vote against suspending the budget review committee in September, has disagreed with suspending the committee for a year, saying the committee provided the board "extremely valuable information."

"The committee is supposed to be the eyes and ears of the board, so the board isn't only getting staff's opinion," she said.

The budget review committee has operated as a board-chartered committee for nearly the past two decades, evaluating the superintendent's proposed budget and providing comments and questions to board members.

Each board member had the option to appoint one member of the committee, although not all did.

Howard County Education Association President Paul Lemle, who co-chaired the committee last year, said he was not surprised the board moved to suspend the committee.

"They are totally dependent on the school system for its advice and recommendations," he said.

Lemle added that board members "don't understand the budget they approve.

"When we [HCEA] bring them opposing points of view, they're almost always rejected before they're even presented because they don't come from the superintendent," he said.

Despite the suspension of the committee for one year, Lemle and former committee co-chairwoman Christina Delmont-Small plan on moving forward with the committee regardless of the board's decision.

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Lemle said he wants to run an operating budget review committee exactly as it has been run in the past, inviting all of the normal participants and asking school system officials for typical information provided to the committee in the past.

"It'll be a symbolic gesture to say that the committee is important," he said. "The board needs a second opinion on the budget because they're not adept at handling it."

The Board of Directors of the PTA Council of Howard County has voted to support this new committee, according to Delmont-Small, who serves as council president.

"We think it's very important to have the community, especially the PTA community, to have eyes and ears on what is going on with the budget," she said.

Delmont-Small, who has served on the budget review committee for the past three years and as its co-chair last year, said she is hopeful the board will consider the input from this new committee.

"Why would they not consider recommendations from the community they represent?" she said.

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