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Citizens urge Kittleman to fully fund Howard County school budget

Anna Gannon, a reading teacher at Bonnie Branch Middle School, who recently chose to permanently foster three children, calls for full funding. "We are struggling to survive here in Howard county."
Anna Gannon, a reading teacher at Bonnie Branch Middle School, who recently chose to permanently foster three children, calls for full funding. "We are struggling to survive here in Howard county." (Staff photo by Fatimah Waseem)

Facing a sea of supporters in red T-shirts standing for full funding of the school system, Howard County Executive Allan Kittleman painted a clear picture at Monday night's budget hearing: the county cannot fully fund the school's proposed operating budget.

"It's very difficult," Kittleman said. "I don't want any misperception out there."

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The school's operating budget request for $612.6 million from the county — an increase of nearly 13 percent over last year — stands in stark contrast to the county's expected new revenue of $32.7 million this year.

The chief of Howard County schools has unveiled her most ambitious operating budget proposal since taking office in 2012. Superintendent Renee Foose's request of $838.7 million for fiscal year 2017 represents a $62.3 million and 8 percent increase over the current year's approved budget, and includes funding for 56 new positions to support enrollment growth.

To fully fund the schools' request, Kittleman said he would have to take at least one of several steps: a 15.4 percent hike in property taxes, slicing the police department by two-thirds, or eliminating 13 county departments.

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"It cannot be done," Kittleman said flatly.

The hearing — the second ahead of 2017's budget season — previewed tough budget decisions expected as the county attempts to clamp down on debt authorization limits and balance projects to maintain the county's aging infrastructure and keep up with new capital needs. Departing from previous years, the county budgeted $0 for road resurfacing due to limited revenue. Around $400,000 from fiscal year 2015 carried over for road resurfacing this year, according to press secretary Andy Barth.

A recent advisory group report urged the county to limit debt authorization of government obligated bonds, a significant funding source for capital projects, to $85 million. Kittleman called the county's financial forecast a "reality check." In fiscal year 2016, the county authorized $96 million in general obligation bonds, departing from historical highs of $120 million annually.

Overall, the school's $856.4 million operating budget calls for $80.1 million more than last year's approved operating budget. It includes $3.1 million for 56 new positions to support project enrollment growth of 1,088 students.

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In a show of overwhelming support, supporters of the schools' budget crowded the public hearing room on Monday. Speakers framed funding for the school system as a strategic investment in the county's future.

Superintendent Renee Foose said funding was needed "to sustain progress." Ellen Flynn Giles, vice chairwoman of the Board of Education, said the budget also accounts for significant increases in mandated health costs and the compounded impact of enrollment increases.

Howard County Executive Allan Kittleman struck a conciliatory tone as parents and residents pressed him to address their frustrations with what they called the lack transparency and fairness in the public school system at his first town hall this year.

In a personal plea, Gary Beachum, a teacher in the school system for 23 years who survived two bouts of cancer, joined other educators in calling the county to support its teachers, several of whom expressed concerns about financial stability.

"You have many needs, but you have some of the greatest people here. We make personal sacrifices," said Beachum. ""We are the front lines for the future."

Kimberly Graham, a teacher, said she and her husband moved in with her parents to save up for a home in the county after paying nearly $76,000 in student loans over two years.

"Our pay hasn't matched," Graham said.

This year's budget request supports a tentative agreement between the Board of Education and the educator's association regarding contracts over the next two years. Benefits include a salary step increase, compression of the pay scale and compensation for three additional non-instruction days.

Howard Community College requested $10.3 million to complete construction of a science, engineering and technology building slated to open in spring next year, and $4.2 million for renovations across campus, including upgrades to campus security systems.

Overall, the college is requesting a 9.2 percent increase in its operating budget to finance 13 new positions and a 4 percent salary increase for budgeted employees, said President Kathleen Hetherington.

"Tuition most recently increased $5 a credit hour this fiscal year, but with the county's support, we can hold the line with tuition next fiscal year," Hetherington said.

The college expects $1.7 million in state funding, according to Gov. Larry Hogan's proposed operating budget, a 10.7 percent increase over last year.

The public hearing also attracted support for a new library in Elkridge, a "long overdue" facility that resident Deeba Jafri said must match population increases along the Rt. Route 1 corridor.

"I'm really tired of having my children have Miller Branch envy," Jafri said.

Leaders of the library system, which accounts for less than 2 percent of the county's operating budget, asked for $8.2 million to renovate the central and east Columbia branches.

"We are a smart investment producing a great return," said Valerie Gross, the library system's CEO and president.

The Maryland House of Delegates Ways and Means Committee heard public testimony Monday about legislation that would open an investigation into the Howard County School System's handling of public information requests under Superintendent Renee Foose's leadership. Nearly a dozen parents and elected officials urged the 22-member committee to support the bill. No one testified against it.

Residents like Margaret Ann Nolan also called for a sidewalk alongside Frederick Road between Centennial and St. Johns lanes. Citing an increase in commercial activity, Nolan said the current area is dangerous for pedestrians, particularly near the area connecting Centennial Lane to the Miller Branch library.

The county plans to improve streets in Savage in order to improve travel for pedestrians, bicyclists and cars. Designated by the Planning Board as a major priority, the new project would be in sync with projects to improve stormwater runoff.

Other requests included $150,000 to commemorate Columbia's 50th birthday, support for the Foreign Born Information and Referral Network, support for the remediation of the Harriet Tubman High School and funds to partly restore Weir House in Ellicott City, to recreate a Quaker schoolhouse.

Kittleman plans to submit the capital budget to the County Council on April 1.

An earlier version of the article misquoted Rachel Edoho-Eket, assistant principal of Waverly Elementary School. The article has been updated to reflect the individual Kimberly Graham.

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