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Howard County school budget proposal is 'springboard' for future

Superintendent Michael Martirano
Superintendent Michael Martirano(Jen Rynda/BSMG file)

Howard County Superintendent Michael Martirano on Tuesday night introduced what he called a defining $850.7 million operating budget proposal that adds 137 new student service-related positions and cuts roughly four dozen administrative jobs.

An increased focus on student mental health is a major component of Martirano’s budget, which contains plans to hire a social worker for every high school and a registered nurse for every school over several years. This year’s budget includes funding for the first three social workers.

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The budget proposal for fiscal 2019 is 3.9 percent larger than this year’s and requests $594.5 million from the county, $243.7 million from the state and $12.5 million from additional sources.

Much of the county’s funding covers the school system’s maintenance of effort, the minimum funding the county must provide based on student population and is mandated by the state.

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Martirano’s budget, his first since being named superintendent of one of the state’s largest, wealthiest and highest achieving districts, also aims to close a $22 million health-care benefits deficit.

As part of its wide effort to bring student equity to the forefront of its work, the Howard County school system is in the midst of implementing revisions to its curriculum to make classrooms more inclusive and community oriented.

“[The deficit] is a dominating variable that screams at me that others have not been talking about,” Martirano said. “This is not a problem that I invented or created, but serving at the helm of the leadership right now, I have no other choice but to take it on.”

Given the “shameful” state of the school system’s finances, Martirano said he would not be able to advance as many of the county’s programs as far as he would like, but that this year would act as a “springboard” to create a road map for the next three years of his term.

To accomplish his goals, Martirano said he is ready to work collaboratively and transparently with the Board of Education, the county executive and the County Council, which must ultimately approve the school system’s budget. Martirano said the days of infighting and tension among top school officials and the board, problems which plagued the county under former Superintendent Renee Foose, are over.

While salary negotiations with the Howard County Education Association, the union representing teachers, are ongoing, $8.1 million has been set aside in the budget for staff salary increases.

Leading up to the introduction of Martirano’s budget, Howard County Education Association President Colleen Morris said she felt confident that the superintendent would present a budget that puts the needs of students first.

With now only four years to construct a 13th high school by the 2022 deadline, County Executive Allan Kittleman made sticking to that timeline potentially more difficult late last month when he announced that he would not support the proposed site at Rockburn Branch Park.

Morris said the communication from Martirano about his priorities for the county to focus on classrooms has been much more transparent than leadership in past years.

“In the last [budget cycle], we had to work with the community to talk about our needs publicly, and now I think that the school system is hearing all of the needs and that will be reflected,” Morris said.

Morris said one of her top funding priorities is to provide enough staff in schools to reduce class sizes. Large class sizes and overcrowded schools have been a common complaint among parents during recent public meetings concerning growth in the county.

Despite desires for reduced class sizes, Martirano said doing so is not realistic given the current budget constraints, but that he has no plans to increase class sizes. That pragmatism, he said, is part of his focus on acknowledging that the county has limited resources.

“I want this to be an extremely civil process,” Martirano said. “We should not be at odds fighting for something that we all believe in, our school system, which is the absolute gem of Howard County.”

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