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Howard council studies ways to avert larger class sizes by bolstering school budget

Howard County school offices.
Howard County school offices. (Baltimore Sun file)

The Howard County Council is looking to shift $5.1 million into the school system’s proposed budget so schools can avoid increasing class sizes next year.

“We want there to be the best environment for teaching and learning and another class size increase does not help that environment for anyone,” Councilman Calvin Ball said after the council did a last-minute review of budget line items last week.

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The council is scheduled to vote Thursday on a $1.6 billion county operating budget for the fiscal year that starts July 1. The budget includes $594 million for schools.

In the budget submitted this spring to the county for consideration, schools Superintendent Michael Martirano said he did not want to increase class sizes but needed to make the adjustment to achieve a balanced budget.

“I can’t count on balancing my budget based on class-size increases,” Martirano said in a Friday telephone interview. “It’s not wise and going to hurt us instructionally.”

Class sizes have increased twice in the past five years, he said.

Without additional funding, current classes across grades one through 12 will increase by one student, according to Brian Bassett, county schools spokesman.

For the current school year, the first- and second-grade classrooms student-to-teacher target ratio is one teacher to 20 students. For third grade to fifth grade, the target is 1-to-26 students. For middle school classrooms, the ratio is 1-to-21 and high schools are at 1.4 teachers to 28 students, according to a school system online fact sheet.

During last Thursday’s council budget review session, Council chairwoman Mary Kay Sigaty and Councilman Greg Fox, while showing support for education, voiced concerns about potenital future costs and the need for a holistic approach to funding.

“I think it would be beneficial for us to understand the impact of the scouring of the budget that [Councilman] Ball talked about … [as] we make choices to shift money,” Sigaty said. “It is fair for us to know that … so when we finally make a decision, we make a decision with our eyes wide open.”

A factor that has loomed large in school budget discussions has been plugging a $50 million deficit in the school system’s health-care fund and the county’s budget proposed by County Executive Allan Kittleman provides money to start reducing the fund’s red ink. Ball proposed a plan, to be voted on next week, that would draw money from other budget categories to allow the $5.1 million for schools. Funds might be shifted from areas such as risk management, technology and vehicle fleet programs.

In addition to maintaining class sizes, Ball said some of the additional funds could be used for a greater investment in a “restorative practices” program to help improve student behavior and discipline.

“Our community is hurting right now and there is a great deal of division,” Ball said Thursday, the same day four Glenelg High School students were criminally charged with hate crimes for painting racist messages at the school.

“If it is a priority every year we need to find the money to do what we’re supposed to do,” Ball said. “For Howard County that is [investing in education] a top priorirty and a top factor for our success.”

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