Baltimore County school leaders have backed away from an ambitious budget proposal after the county executive quietly summoned board members to his office and told them to reduce the request.
Superintendent Dallas Dance had proposed a $1.5 billion budget to meet the needs of the county system, which ranks 13th in per pupil spending in the state. But after County Executive Kevin Kamenetz's private meetings with school board members, Dance has cut $18 million from the request.
That change, and the private meetings that led to it, have drawn criticism.
While the proposal still gives teachers a raise, pays for an enrollment increase of about 1,000 students, and funds laptops for first through third graders, Dance has cut back on other priorities, including the hiring of additional teachers for an influx of immigrants. The county also has a growing low-income and minority population.
"An $18 million cut off the budget is significant," said Yara Cheikh, a parent activist, adding that the initial budget didn't have "any bells and whistles. So the cuts that are being forced upon the school system cut into necessary funding."
Board member Lawrence Schmidt said the meeting he and colleagues had with Kamenetz was not adversarial. But, he said, Kamenetz said firmly, "I am just telling you realistically I don't think this is a budget the county can fund." Kamenetz met with board members a few at a time, participants said.
The information filtered from the board members to the superintendent and his staff, who pared back the budget request, said Mychael Dickerson, a spokesman for Dance.
Dance "talked to his board members and they expressed the need for us to meet the fiscal reality of the county's budget," Dickerson said.
Dance, citing a list of unmet needs, originally sought an 8.7 percent increase in the county's contribution to the school system's budget. He is now asking for a 5 percent increase – half of which is required by state law because of higher enrollment. The county school system has been growing by about 1,000 students a year and now educates about 110,000 students.
A spokesman for Kamenetz acknowledged he met with small groups of board members to discuss the county's budget constraints. "What the county executive discussed with school board members was the big-picture budget realities," said Ellen Kobler, his spokeswoman.
Officials also point out the school system learned it is likely to get about $10 million more under Gov. Larry Hogan's budget proposal than they had estimated. Schools budget director George Sarris said the additional money allowed district officials to avoid further cuts in their latest budget proposal.
Gone from the new proposal are all but 6 of 31 new teachers Dance had wanted to hire for a growing population of recent immigrants who don't speak English. The graduation rate for students learning English dropped last year by 3 percentage points, and there has been no increase in the teaching staff for seven years. The ratio of these so-called ESOL teachers to students has risen to 1 to 75 in the county's elementary schools. The additional teachers would have cut the ratio to 1 to 44.
Not having enough of those teachers "creates adverse affects in our classrooms and in our communities," Cheikh said.
Those teachers play a special role in the lives of students new to the country, said Elizabeth Alex, regional lead organizer for Casa De Maryland. "I know several who came here and spoke zero English and now are professionals," said Alex. As adults, she said, they often point to their first ESOL teacher as the one who determined the course of their lives in this country. "It was the first teachers who make a difference in whether they will drop out or go on to achieve," she said.
Dance has made other cuts to the budget, which still must be voted on by the school board and then will go to Kamenetz and the county council.
The county executive's decision to meet privately with board members drew criticism from Maryland Common Cause, a watchdog group. Executive Director Jennifer Bevan-Dangel said the discussion should have been held in public.
"It is clear there is an intentional effort to avoid the open meetings act," she said. "If critical public decisions are being made then they need to be made before the public."
If Kamenetz had met with more than three members of the board at one time, he would have run afoul of the open meetings law, which requires public meetings to be posted and open to anyone who wants to attend. "They followed the letter of the law but not the intent," Bevan-Dangel said.
Kobler said the meetings "were scheduled for the convenience of board members and done in small groups in order to be respectful of their schedules – at their request. Direct discussion with board members is an excellent way to work together to determine funding priorities."
Schmidt, a former school board president, said he has had phone conversations from time to time about the budget with county budget staff and with Kamenetz, but that school board members aren't usually called to the county executive's office.
The school board does not have to cut the budget, but if it doesn't, Kamenetz and the county council have the power to do so. Some board members have said they would prefer to make the cuts themselves to have some control over educational priorities.
Some parents and legislators contend that board members have not always fought hard enough for funding or been responsive to concerns. They helped push through legislation that will mean the majority of the board will be elected beginning in 2018, after Kamenetz leaves office.
At a school board meeting this week, Dance discussed some of the changes he made to his proposal. He had originally asked for $2 million more to fund maintenance of schools, but he announced that would be cut entirely. Minutes earlier, Dulaney High School parents had gone before the school board complaining that pipes carrying scalding water had burst recently. They complained that water in the school runs brown and that there are constant problems with heating and plumbing systems.
Schmidt, who toured the building, said the school system must find some money to resolve safety issues in the school, even if there isn't enough money to provide air conditioning. The county has not raised its property tax in more than 25 years. While some advocates have suggested an increase to fund schools, Schmidt said, "I don't know there is the political will to do that."
Cheikh suggested that the community should begin to talk about it.
"Funding education is an investment, not an expense," she said. "Finding enough revenue to do it in Baltimore County is going to require a difficult and public discussion moving forward."