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County Council proposes amendment to increase funding in school budget

County Council proposes amendment to increase funding in school budget
From left, Howard County schools Superintendent Michael Martirano, school board Chairwoman Mavis Ellis and Rafiu O. Ighile, the school system's chief financial officer, discuss the school district's operating budget at a work session with County Council on Wednesday. (Jess Nocera / Baltimore Sun Media Group)

As it comes down to the wire to finalize the Howard County school system’s operating budget before the deadline, additional funds are being proposed that could allow schools to maintain class sizes.

At the end of a nearly nine-hour work session May 15 between the County Council and school officials, Councilwoman Deb Jung announced the council is going to work on a budget amendment to add more funding into the school system’s proposed fiscal 2020 budget ahead of final approval.

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Council members Liz Walsh and David Yungmann expressed their support of the undetermined additional funding amount. Council Chairwoman Christiana Rigby and Councilman Opel Jones did not explicitly say whether they support an amendment.

Schools Superintendent Michael Martirano said at the work session he is seeking an additional $10.6 million to what is being proposed by the county.

“I am encouraged by the commitment from a majority to advance an amendment to help us meet our obligations, particularly our commitment to maintain class sizes and fund our negotiated agreements,” he said in a statement after the work session.

The school board’s proposed budget was discussed between the County Council, Martirano, Board of Education Chairwoman Mavis Ellis, chief financial officer for the school system Rafiu O. Ighile and various school officials.

Earlier in the work session, David Larner, the school system’s chief human resources and professional development officer, discussed at length what a class size increase could look like.

“When we say a class size increase, it doesn’t mean that every class is going to increase by one or two students,” he said. “What ends up happening is many classes aren’t impacted at all and other classes are impacted significantly.”

Larner presented an example: If 80 students signed up for an algebra class that was slated to be four sections with 20 students in each class, a class size increase could force there to only be three sections, jumping the number of students in each class from 20 to 27.

Rigby expressed her frustration toward the possibility of class size increases.

“It’s a little frustrating and disturbing that through all your budget choices it’s starting with class sizes,” Rigby said. “I get that a significant percentage of your budget is personnel, but I still find it inappropriate.”

In the final hour of budget negotiations last year, the County Council gave the school system an additional $5.1 million to curb the increase in class sizes.

In February, the school board approved its requested $972.7 million fiscal 2020 operating budget. Once approved, it was sent to County Executive Calvin Ball.

Besides county funding, the school board’s $972.7 million spending plan seeks $265.7 million from the state, $385,000 in federal funding and $17.3 million from “other sources.”

The council is working with Ball’s proposed $605.2 million for the school system’s operating budget. The proposal is nearly $84 million less than the school board’s request of $689.3 million from the county of its total request.

School officials are tackling the gap between the proposed funding and what is needed for the school system to meet its obligations, according to Larner.

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The school system’s obligations include having the funds to meet payroll for all employees every two weeks and meeting the $33 million — $26 million for fiscal 2020 with an additional $7 million being spent in the middle of the year for raises — negotiated agreement with the Howard County Education Association, the teacher’s union, according to Martirano.

“My top priority is to take care of our people who take care of our children,” he said.

A proposed cut is to decrease the number of elementary technology teaching positions from 62 to 42. This decrease would still allow for each school to have one technology teacher in some capacity.

If that cut occurss happens, those 20 teachers will not be laid off.

“No teacher has been told they are losing their job or being furloughed … [the teachers] would still have other jobs in the school system that met their certifications,” Larner said.

This process is called surplussing, where those teachers would be moved around the school system into a different job, he said.

Surplussing is “not a quick and easy process,” he said; it takes a minimum of six weeks to move teachers around, allowing them to talk to principals and about the moves happening. Realistically, the process takes between eight to 10 weeks, Larner added.

During this year’s budget cycle, other county departments with staffing costs that are large parts of their budgets are trying to “pinch, pinch, pinch, pinch” where they can, Rigby said.

“We’ve gone through literally every [county] department at this point and none have been talking about furloughs, layoffs or cuts,” she added.

The possible surplussing process “was not put in place for political pressure,” Larner said.

“One of the things that has really put us on the defensive a little on this is the 1,200 emails we've got claiming we are cutting the budget, [and] handwritten letters from third-graders imploring us to not cut the budget,” Yungmann said. “There is nothing that is more infuriating than us, the county executive, the school system, teachers, whoever it is, I don't care, manipulating elementary school kids.”

“We are not miss-spreading information. There was never a message to tell anybody to tell teachers to tell students and to get students activated,” Larner said.

The County Council is scheduled to approve the county’s entire operating budget May 29.

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