Harford schools chief seeks budget boost

THE BALTIMORE SUN

The Harford County schools chief unveiled last night her boldest spending plan yet, a $338.8 million operating budget for the 2005-2006 school year that would create the first new teaching positions in two years and significantly boost teacher salaries.

Superintendent Jacqueline C. Haas, in her seventh year, told the school board she wants to increase spending by $42 million, or 14 percent, for the fiscal year beginning in July. Of that money, $25.5 million would come from county taxpayers, the rest from the state.

In an interview earlier yesterday, Haas said the plan would address long-standing needs of a school system that in the past two years has added few new teachers and seen teacher salaries rank among the lowest in Maryland.

"When you're losing ground and you're not getting [new] people, it's going to take huge leaps of fiscal support to get back to where you need to be," Haas said.

The school system's operating budget has increased by no more than 7 percent each year in the past decade. But that could change this year, Haas said, with signs of a reviving economy and a commitment by County Executive James M. Harkins to raise teacher salaries.

"There is obviously an indication that economic times have improved," Haas said. But her plan would be justified in any economic climate, she said. "We've left a lot of needs on the table over the years, and we're putting them all in this year."

The biggest piece of her spending plan calls for hiring 237 employees, including 162 teachers. Among the new positions, 68 would go to secondary schools and 30 to special education.

Haas also has set aside money to raise teacher salaries. Starting salaries have fallen to 21st from 12th among the state's 24 school systems. She requested an additional $18 million to cover higher teacher salaries and new hires. However, that number is likely to change because the system is negotiating with unions on wage increases, said Donald R. Morrison, Harford schools spokesman.

Haas' proposal will be scrutinized in coming weeks before a final vote by the Board of Education on Jan. 24. School officials are unsure how the proposal will be received.

"The school system has consistently asked for more than it has received," Morrison said. But he called the proposal "a very conservative list of what the school system needs to meet some of the challenges of No Child Left Behind and other mandates."

At last night's meeting, no one in the audience spoke during the period for public comment, to the dismay of school board President Robert B. Thomas Jr.

But, he said, he was impressed by Haas' presentation, calling her budget document "the best ... I've seen in my 10 years on the board."

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