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County: No plans to increase Howard school budget

A public hearing before the Board of Education drew crowds of people who urged the board to "keep our promise" on May 12.
A public hearing before the Board of Education drew crowds of people who urged the board to "keep our promise" on May 12. (Fatimah Waseem)

As Howard County school system's leaders plan to address a shortfall in their coming budget, the Kittleman administration said it does not plan to further increase the school system's budget, according to the county's budget director, Holly Sun.

In a statement Friday afternoon, Sun wrote the administration "has not received any requests from [the school system] for categorical changes" and "no information has been presented to the budget office that warrants changes."

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Howard County Executive Allan Kittleman's schools budget, which is $18.1 million more than what the county provided last year and represents the second-largest overall hike in the last eight years, is $50.4 million short of the board's record high request of $808.4 million overall.

The school system's communications director, John White, said the school system has "provided the budget office with a high level of detail and justification" for their request, citing a Wednesday morning meeting with a member of the county's budget office.

"It is unfortunate being left with a $50 million dollar difference, but not surprising. We are hoping the County Council can intervene or major cuts across the budget will be necessary," said White. "Any level of restoration will be helpful to prepare for the next school year."

The County Council, which can bridge the gap between the school system's request and the administration's budget through cuts from the overall budget or a property tax increase, did not request changes to the school system's budget by the deadline to file changes.

Competing narratives about the school system's budget emerged earlier at a day-long council work session Wednesday.

School system Budget Director Beverly Davis maintained that while the administration's budget funds negotiated salary increases, it does not fund benefits, which are part of the negotiated agreements.

School officials contend Kittleman's budget — which cuts $39.4 million from the school system's fund for fixed charges — does not adequately cover the school system's needs. This year, the school system's health and dental fund will be in a deficit of between $12 to $15 million, according to Davis.

Sun said the nearly 29 percent increase in the fixed charges category cannot be explained by growing pension or health benefit costs.

"We think we provided sufficient coverage for what's needed in a normal year," said Sun, pointing to what she called "a structural imbalance" between revenues and expenditures in the school system's health and dental fund.

Davis denied the administration's assessment, saying the school system has averted a projected deficit by starting the year with higher fund balances through one-time savings, rebates, lower-than-projected actuarial claims and savings from previous years.

The council, which can restore funding to the school budget through cuts to the overall budget or tax increases, is expected to decide Friday if funding will be restored.

Davis urged the council to restore funding, saying that if funds are not restored the board will likely cut from other categories to partially account for losses in fixed charges, based on recommendations from staff and management. Transfers from categories require council approval.

"We won't have the cash to pay the bills," said Davis. "They're fixed charges and that's why they're called that."

A recent spending assessment found modest projected revenues of roughly $32.7 million in fiscal year 2017. The board's request, which Kittleman flatly said he would not fully fund at a March 15 hearing, sits in stark contrast to this economic forecast.

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"What were you thinking the county or the council would do?" asked Councilman Greg Fox, citing the county's high ranking in amount of per-pupil spending.

"At the end of the day, do we live in the means? Or there is a joint desire to raise the tax to satisfy the need? That's a big and broader discussion," said Sun.

Some council members disagreed with the school system's decision to include the full cost of negotiated salary increases in 2016 — roughly $12.7 million — into this year's budget, even though half of that amount was absorbed in fiscal year 2016.

Davis said that amount was not part of last year's baseline budget because agreements were finalized after the budget was finalized. The school system therefore included the cost of last year's negotiated salaries in this year's budget to reflect a consistent starting point.

"We don't have to buy that argument," said Fox.

Howard County Education Association President Paul Lemle wrote the board's budget "overstates' the impact of the union's agreements and "overestimates" the costs of health care.

The disagreement was emblematic of moments in the session when council members and school system officials emerged with different assessments based on the same documents before them.

"It feels like every bit is hiding the ball ... and [the information is] on 14 different charts," said Councilwoman Jen Terrasa.

While the school system routinely uses cost-saving measures and strategies to reduce costs, early retirement savings and other cost-cutting measures utilized to find roughly $6.4 million to cover salary increases in 2016 were not fully available this year, said Davis.

Harkening back to last year's budget discussions, Ball said the council discussed the possibility of adding more funds to last year's budget.

"You all said no," said Ball. "We'll be able to move things around and then in [fiscal year] 2017, we'll be able to have sufficient funding with what we need."

Davis disagreed, saying "there was an anticipation a year ago that we would be here at this moment."

The real challenge, Davis said, was absorbing salary increases for 2017, citing accusations "we were hiding money in the health fund."

Ball called her assessment "overly negative."

The county's capital and operating budgets will be adopted on May 26.

This story has been updated.

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