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Schools deliberate cuts

The Baltimore Sun

As Harford County school officials decide where to cut $10.5 million from the current budget, schools Superintendent Jacqueline C. Haas said recently that no employees would be laid off and that vacant teaching positions would be filled.

Haas and other school officials say they will focus on trimming construction, repair and maintenance projects that don't directly affect teaching.

The cuts come in response to County Executive David Craig's request two weeks ago to all county departments to immediately reduce the current operating budget by 5 percent.

"This is the most challenging budget situation we've seen in my 11 years as superintendent, absolutely," Haas said.

She said she wants to see vacant teaching jobs filled but was recommending that open administrative jobs be left unfilled.

Officials are also discussing cuts to professional and curriculum development. Much of these funds go to pay teachers to develop lesson plans and improve skills outside school hours.

"These are frightening times," said school board President Patrick Hess. "The $64 question is what happens next year."

He said he was more concerned about possible cuts in next year's budget than the proposed cuts in this year's operating budget.

Hess said the discussions over the past two weeks have been focused and productive.

"It hasn't been contentious," he said. "We all know this has to be done."

Haas said deciding on cuts was extremely difficult. "There's nothing in the budget that we don't believe we need," she said. She said she has been thinking "constantly" about what can be cut.

The school board will hold a budget meeting tomorrow night to make the final decision after board members and school officials spent the past two weeks looking for ways to reduce the budget.

At the meeting, Haas will present the board with her proposed cuts. As the final arbiter, the board will discuss the proposal and then vote.

Harford's school budget for the year is $419 million. Just more than half of that, $210 million, comes from the county. Craig asked the schools to cut 5 percent of the $210 million.

About 85 percent of the total budget goes for salaries for teachers and administrators. Harford County employs about 3,100 teachers.

School board members echoed Haas' desire to avoid job cuts.

"We have to minimize the impact on the classroom," said school board member Mark M. Wolkow. "If we don't pave over a parking lot this year, and wait until next year, it's not the worst thing."

At the same time, no one doubted that the cuts were necessary, given the state of the economy in Harford County, the state and the country.

Haas and other officials say the county's budget shortfall is the result of an unexpected and steep drop in revenue from income taxes and real estate taxes, especially transfer taxes from home sales. In Harford County, as in much of the country, real estate values have dropped precipitously, and home sales have slowed significantly.

Some school board members expressed optimism that the cuts would not damage education.

"What we'll do will be of minimal impact to the students," said board member John Smilko.

He noted that as a small-business owner - he runs a software and supply company in Bel Air - he is used to dealing with revenue drops.

"I've been through hard times. I know you can live through it. You just do what you gotta do," Smilko said.

The head of the Harford teachers union, Randy Cerveny, also said he has been told that the cuts would not include job losses or furloughs. But he worried that future budget cuts would go further. Cerveny, president of the Harford County Education Association, said his members were "nervous for the future."

Haas agreed that the budget constraints would likely continue.

Others shared this fear.

"The real challenge is going to be next year," said Cindy Mumby, who has a child at Patterson Mill High School and has been active in Harford school issues for more than a decade.

One potential key issue is who pays for teacher pensions. The state now foots the entire bill, but some legislators have suggested handing some of the burden to counties as a money-saving measure.

Cerveny said if that were to happen, Harford County would be obligated to come up with an additional $28 million a year.

Forcing counties to take on the obligation would be "devastating," he said.

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