The Howard County school board approved a $906.8 million budget Monday night that increases class sizes and eliminates an elementary school language program.
The approval of a budget that is 10 percent larger than this year’s brings to an end the first phase of what school board Chairwoman Cindy Vaillancourt described as an “agonizing process” to cut the budget and address a prolonged deficit.
County Executive Allan Kittleman, who will approve a budget for the school system in April as part of the county’s overall budget before sending it to the County Council for a final vote, said in a statement that education “has always been my priority and continues to be so.”
“The difficult budget choices before the [board] now are a direct result of its lack of appropriate fiscal management of their health and dental fund over the past 10 years,” Kittleman said in a statement.
Last year Kittleman cut the school system’s $626 million request for county funds, the largest until this year’s, by $54 million.
Kittleman has also said that this will “not be an easy year” for the county budget, as the county faces a decline in revenue growth.
The school board voted to increase class sizes by one student for first through 12th grades and to eliminate the county’s elementary world language program, offered in eight elementary schools.
Superintendent Michael Martirano, who had introduced the cut in a recent budget proposal to allocate more money to pay off the school system’s deficit, said that he hopes many of the program’s 33 teachers can be reassigned, but that it was not a guarantee that all would keep their jobs.
As she fought back tears, board member Sandra French called the elimination of the program “drastic.”
“You’re advocating, your explanations have to be understandable to the general public,” French said. “This is one where parents and children will just not understand.”
Nine elementary world language teachers attended the board meeting.
Andrew Bell, a Spanish teacher at Waverly Elementary School, said it was “sad” to see the program cut from an age that he said is critical for foreign language skills development, and that he didn’t think enough parents in the county understood what was at stake in schools. Bell said he would have rather seen the budget cuts, if necessary, at the administrative or facilities construction level.
“It’s a shame. If anything, this program should be expanding,” Bell said. “[Learning a foreign language] expands your mind, your horizons. We should be leading that charge instead of giving it up. It just doesn’t make sense.”
The school system will request $645.1 million from the county for its operating budget, including $583.2 in recurring costs, $11.4 million in one-time costs and $50.5 million over several years to deal with a health-fund deficit. Last year the county approved $572 million for the school system.
The health-fund deficit is projected to reach $50 million by summer and has been caused from an imbalance in its employee health and dental fund. School officials are aware that some, possibly all, of that request may not be possible to be fulfilled this year, according to school spokesman Jahantab Siddiqui, but that it must be included in the budget in order to seek state approval for the expense as a one-time exemption not counted towards the county’s Maintenance of Effort, which is the minimum spending the county is state mandated to provide its schools.
The school system is requesting $249.3 million from the state and $12.6 million from federal and other sources.
Board members approved a $79 million request for capital projects, such as $6 million for renovations to Hammond High School, $4 million for renovations to Waverly Elementary School and $8 million for the construction of a replacement Talbott Springs Elementary School.
As they made their votes, members including Vaillancourt and Christina Delmont-Small stated that they felt this year’s budget woes were symptomatic of a larger problem in the county that the school system is chronically underfunded.
“We do not have the money to run the school system,” Delmont-Small said.
During his remarks, Martirano said that he wanted to see the county engage in a “serious conversation” about how it prioritizes and funds education, something Vaillancourt said she thought was also necessary to resolve what she said has been a decade of underfunding the school system.
Board member Kirsten Coombs said that as part of that conversation, it would be necessary to discuss whether to raise taxes in the county to better support the school system.
“Our growth is so high, student growth outpaces the tax base,” Coombs said.
Educators’ union president Colleen Morris, implored the public to voice its support for the school system’s budget and for education in the county; Morris called the board’s budget approval a “call to action.”