Later school start times and screening to help detect reading disabilities were among ideas drawing comment Tuesday at a public hearing on the Howard County school system’s $1 billion proposed operating budget for the coming fiscal year.
Superintendent Michael Martirano unveiled the proposed $998.4 million operating budget last month. The budget, 15.8 percent larger than last year’s, requests $722.9 million from the county, $257.8 million from the state and $17.1 million from additional sources.
Martirano has said the budget is his “road map” to guide the school system into the future.
A dozen community members, including three students, testified at the first of the two hearings on the budget plan.
Siblings Zaki and Amina Pucci advocated for later start times. An eighth grader at Elkridge Landing Middle School, Amina said the school system’s hard work to create “interesting curriculum … will be taken for granted and neglected by sleep deprived students.”
Zaki, a fourth grader at Rockburn Elementary School, said he feels well rested when going to school because he goes to sleep at 9 p.m. and wakes up at 8 a.m., but sees his fellow classmates struggling, sometimes putting their hands and heads on their desks to rest.
“I worry that I will be forced to compromise my education in the future,” Zaki said.
Alexander Horn, a freshman at Wilde Lake High School, called for later school start times at the high school level.
“Making later start times is the best thing the school system can do for mental health,” he said.
The proposed budget includes funding for more than 500 positions for mental health, general education, special education and other support positions. Of those, 126 would be new mental health positions.
Martirano is also requesting $27 million to eliminate a deficit in the school system’s health care fund. School officials said in September that the deficit stood at $37 million, but the superintendent said it has since shrunk and could be retired with the $27 million allocation.
In other comments, Stephanie Reed of Columbia and Stephanie Carr of Ellicott City testified separately, though each urged the school district to screen children to help identify reading difficulties or disabilities.
And Nick Novak, principal at Howard High School, spoke on behalf of the Howard County Administrators Association, the county’s union for school administrators and other certificated school and system leaders. Novak, president of the association, thanked Martirano for “presenting an ambitious but an accurate budget request.”
He said the association supports the increase in staffing positions and hopes the school board can secure full funding from the County Council.
The school board has several budget work sessions scheduled throughout the month. Members are expected to adopt the budget plan Feb. 12. It then advances to the County Executive Calvin Ball and the council for consideration.
The board will host a second public hearing on the spending plan at 7 p.m. on Jan. 29.