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Kittleman budget requires tough cuts, Howard school officials say

Foose said Thursday that "$50 million is an awful lot of money to try and find in a budget when it's just not there, so that requires cuts. And we've put together some scenarios and we're going to ask our entire community to respond back to us so it informs the board and helps us to make some decisions that are difficult."
Foose said Thursday that "$50 million is an awful lot of money to try and find in a budget when it's just not there, so that requires cuts. And we've put together some scenarios and we're going to ask our entire community to respond back to us so it informs the board and helps us to make some decisions that are difficult." (Baltimore Sun file photo)

The Howard County school system plans to send a survey to its families and employees asking what educational resources they would "cut" or "keep" under County Executive Allan Kittleman's proposed operating budget for 2017.

"We are going to need the input of our stakeholders to make the best decisions for our students and to help the board make informed decisions moving forward," Superintendent Renee Foose said at the board's meeting Thursday.

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While Kittleman's proposed operating budget provides $18.1 million more to the school system than last year's budget, it is $50.4 million less than the board's $612.6 million request.

Board Chairwoman Christine O'Connor told the County Council during a budget hearing Monday that, under the county executive's proposal, the school system would have to consider increasing class sizes, cutting nearly 200 staff positions and implementing at least three furlough days for staff next school year.

School system critics say the proposed cuts and the survey are a way of playing the County Council, which is tasked with approving the budget, against the County Executive to grant to the board's full request.

Foose said Thursday that "$50 million is an awful lot of money to try and find in a budget when it's just not there, so that requires cuts. And we've put together some scenarios and we're going to ask our entire community to respond back to us so it informs the board and helps us to make some decisions that are difficult."

A sample of the budget survey presented at the meeting showed an option for cutting or keeping expansion of prekindergarten programming in Oakland Mills, which the board proposed in its budget request. School system finance director Beverly Davis said that respondents would have to choose enough cuts like this one to total $50.4 million, or at the end of the survey they could ask for restoration of the board's full budget request.

"It is encouraging to see the HCPSS reaching out and soliciting feedback from the community," Kittleman wrote about the survey in an email Friday. "As County Executive, I strive to do that year around — engaging residents through Town Hall meetings, community meetings, social media, and other avenues. It is one of the reasons why I believe my proposed budget ... represents our residents' priorities of investing directly in our classrooms."

Both the board and the superintendent have been criticized by parents in recent months for allegedly disregarding the concerns of the community, and also for the school system's expenditures on non-instructional items, such as its communications team.

Voters knocked two of three school board incumbents from the race in last week's primary, following a call from critics for a Board of Education that is more responsive to the public and transparent about its financial decisions.

Kittleman's budget proposal delineates how much money can be spent in each school budget category — a decision that in past years has been left up to the Board of Education, Vice Chairwoman Ellen Flynn Giles said Thursday.

Critics of the school system see this move as an attempt by Kittleman to direct funds toward classroom instruction and reign in discretionary spending.

"For some reason on Route 108, people seem to think there's an unlimited pot of tax dollars," parent Judy Fisher George said to the Council Monday, referring to the school system's central office. "People need to know that it can be done with less."

The County Executive's budget fully funds the board's request for special education funds and, according to Kittleman, also funds negotiated teacher salary increases and 56 new positions to support enrollment growth. On the other hand, it cuts $39.4 million from the board's funding request for the fixed charges category that includes the cost of employee health insurance and early retirement incentives.

Davis said Thursday night that Kittleman's funding of staff salaries in his budget is at the expense of employee benefits, and that

Kittleman's $156.5 million appropriation to the fixed charges category — $4.7 million more than provided this year — would exacerbate a deficit in the system's employee health fund that is projected for the end of fiscal year 2016.

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Board member Bess Altwerger questioned this Thursday night.

"In the past, if I understood correctly, we have ended up much better off than we thought we were going to be when it comes to the health fund," she said. "The actuals were not as bad as the projection, and we ended up much better off. Is there any chance that we can end up better off than $15 million in deficit?"

In recent years, Davis said, the school system has transferred extra balances from other programs into the health fund, and as a result it has ended stayed in the black. Davis said such a measure may not be sufficient for the current year because of the rising costs of healthcare.

Council considers budget

The topic of fixed charges and the projected health fund deficit generated much back and forth between Davis and members of the County Council during a budget work session Friday, with the latter group trying to decipher the implications of Kittleman's cuts to the board's funding request. This included discussion of an early retirement incentive that was introduced a year ago but must be paid out in upcoming years, as well as the impact of teacher and administrator salary negotiations on the operating budget.

County Councilwoman Jen Terrasa requested clarification on whether or not central office staff will receive the same salary increases as school system employees who are in bargaining units.

"What is in the budget is the same increase for all employees," Davis said, adding that the percentage increase was the same but the amounts were different.

"I understand the difference between percentage and amount," Terrasa replied. "What I'm asking is if you have a number here that is implying to the rest of us that this is a result of the negotiated agreements, but includes amount of increase for folks in central office that accounts for some of the money. I want to know what part of this is for central office staff."

Across the board, members of the Council determined they needed more detailed information from the school system to make decisions about the school budget, which both parties agreed would be sent early next week.

The Council will have another budget work session with the school system on May 18, and is scheduled to approve and adopt the county's 2017 budget on May 26.

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