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More than 50 residents stood outside the meeting room Thursday night, calling on the Board of Education to stand with teachers.
More than 50 residents stood outside the meeting room Thursday night, calling on the Board of Education to stand with teachers. (Staff photo by Fatimah Waseem)

As Paul Lemle, president of the Howard County's teachers union, called on the Howard County Board of Education to maintain negotiated teacher salary increases, more than 60 people stood on grass just outside the board's stand-room-only meeting room Thursday night, echoing the same message: "Stand with educators" and "Keep your promise."

Two spill-over rooms were at capacity. A crowd stood by the open doors of the board's meeting room, listening in. More stood outside, donning red and holding signs.

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In impassioned testimony, parents, school staff, residents and local leaders urged the school system to maintain negotiated agreements with teachers and called out the school system for its "bullying tactics."

School board's response to county executive's budget plan is shrill.

"I know you're not listening to me tonight," parent Deeba Jafri said to the board. "We sent you a message in the primaries and you'll see it again in November."

The spirited hearing, punctuated by audience affirmation and clapping, grows out of a budget clash between the school systems' requested budget and Howard County Executive Allan Kittleman's proposed schools budget, which represents an $18.1 million increase over last year and is the second largest increase in the last eight years, but is $50.4 million short of the board's record-high request of $612.6 million from the county.

"Teachers are not lines on a balance sheet. Principals are not pawns. Children are not a product," wrote parent Nikki Schmidt in testimony read before the board.

Schools Superintendent Renee Foose said the "energy" around the contract was "quite surprising."

"Optimistically, we will have to make decisions that honor the contracts. We've never suggested we weren't going to do that."

School system officials, who have called Kittleman's proposed budget "devastating," contend the board will have to increase class sizes by three students, cut 192 positions, implement three furlough days, cut a world language expansion program and pre-K expansion, as well as push the health fund into a deficit of more than $20 million to preserve salary increases for fiscal year 2017.

On Thursday, residents did not buy into what University of Maryland engineering student Danny Mackey called the board's "political games."

"Take negotiated agreements off the table like the county executive did ... shrink the central office before you shrink our teachers' paychecks .... the money isn't there right now, so figure it out," said Mackey, drawing applause and a standing ovation from the audience.

"You know, we spend so many hours in our schools teaching our children how important it is to be an upstander and not a bystander in the face of bullying. That's what we're all telling you tonight," said Jafri.

Kittleman's budget — which includes $808.4 million from state and county sources — fully funds special education, negotiated teacher salary increases and 56 new positions while cutting roughly $3 million from maintenance costs and $39.4 million from the board's request for fixed charges, which includes health benefits and early retirement.

Representatives from the Howard County Police Officers Association, FOP Lodge 21 and the International Association of Fire Fighters Local 2000 urged the board to honor its contract with teachers.

The administration's proposed budget, which is $48 million under the school system's record high request of $856 million and includes a $18 million increase in county funds from last year, is setting the stage for a budgetary clash.

Holding up his son's student safety contract, Gregory Der, president of the police union, said that if his sixth-grade son can understand what a contract is, it's "sad" that grown people can't.

Lemle said the County Council cannot work with the school system if "it does not trust your numbers."

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"We can restore the reputation of the school system and the board. The educators will not do this if they don't trust your commitment to them," Lemle said.

Although Kittleman included nearly $4.7 million more for fixed charges than last year, Foose said the budget he proposed does not cover health and dental benefits that are part of the negotiated salary increases, warning of an inevitable deficit in the health and dental fund this coming fiscal year.

Critics doubted the validity of the school system's projections, which have, for years, missed their mark. Records show the health fund, which has had historically high surpluses, ended in surpluses despite projections of a deficit.

However, Foose and schools budget director Beverly Davis have said those surpluses were driven by actuarial projections, which create high cost estimates based on worse-case scenarios of health care expenses.

A survey by the school system, which asks identified respondents to decide what educational resource to "cut" or "keep" under Kittleman's proposal, including negotiated salary increases, drew fire Thursday night for "propagandizing" and "playing political games."

"If negotiated salary increases are on the survey, then the contract with teachers is on the table," said Lemle. The union urged the public to report the survey as a labor violation, a move that temporarily shut down the survey last week.

Options for cuts included in the survey were selected based on "drivers of the cost of the budget," said Foose after Thursday's meeting. "We looked at everywhere where we could reduce with hopefully the minimal to zero impact on our classrooms."

Robert Miller, who is one of six candidates running for the board in November, urged the board to consider line-item cuts, one of many suggestions posited by the public Thursday.

"Savings can be realized by ending pet projects that are unproved and unrealistic," said Miller.

"Recognize we had 18 people weigh-in tonight," said Foose after the hearing."We had over a thousand people weigh on the survey. So [this is] the board's opportunity to reach a much larger audience and look at everything."

The Howard County school system plans to send a survey to its families and employees asking what educational resources they would "cut" or "keep" to compensate for what school officials say are devastating cuts to the Board of Education's budget by County Executive Allan Kittleman.

The school system "passed up" two opportunities to discuss expected increases in health care costs in detail and did not raise the issue during negotiations between December and February, said Lemle.

"That's why [this] is so frustrating," said Lemle.

Earlier this month, the union requested records for an audit of medical and prescription claims. Lemle said the board had not responded to the request as of Thursday.

Residents also urged the board to bring back an operating budget review committee disbanded early last year in order to restore transparency and trust in the school system.

"Stand up for our kids," said Marcelino Bedolla, who ran unsuccessfully as a board candidate in the primary this year and wore black to "mourn the lack of trust" Thursday. "Stand up and do what you were elected to do."

The County Council will discuss the school budget at a work session on May 18 and is scheduled to approve and adopt the county's 2017 budget on May 26.

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