Baltimore County Interim Schools Superintendent Verletta White announced that she was slashing her proposed operating budget by $85 million Tuesday night, only hours after County Executive Johnny Olszewski Jr., in an unusual move, testified before the school board saying the county is facing tough financial times.
Olszewski sent a letter to the school board last week outlining the county’s budget dilemma, but it wasn’t until nearly 11 p.m. during the school board meeting that White presented her revised proposed budget. She said she made the changes at the direction of the board chair and vice chair.
Gone from the budget are all but a 2.4 percent increase, most of it coming from sources other than the county. She is seeking just $5.4 million more in county money out of a $1.6 billion budget. White said she was able to preserve the funding for some additional teachers for immigrant students who are learning English and special education students.
She said teachers would not get cost-of-living or step increases, and that they will not be able to afford adding 15 minutes to the school day or reducing class sizes in high schools.
Because the county is adding students each year, the county government is required by state law to pay the additional per-pupil cost of each new student, which will be about $3.8 million next school year.
“I promise I will never stop asking for what our schools need,” White said, adding that her first proposal was what she believed schools needed, a 12 percent increase in funds from the county, or about $99 million more than this year. But she added, “It is important for us to understand the county’s fiscal situation.”
So she has scaled that back to a 0.7 percent increase.
Olszewski’s visit came on the night the school board was considering both its capital and operating budgets.
The county executive did not go so far as to tell board members in public to cut their budget. After his presentation he said, “I am just giving the reality of what we are facing.”
Olszewski said there is an $81 million gap in the 2020 county budget and revenues. And he said the current budget does not account for pay raises for teachers, or prekindergarten or new high schools, as promised by late County Executive Kevin Kamenetz.
“This is not the news I wanted to deliver in the first two months of being county executive,” Olszewski said. “But I promised to be someone who was transparent and would work with all stakeholders. I just wanted to be very clear about the challenges we face in the years ahead.”
County executives rarely come to school board meetings. Instead, they have often set the agenda from behind the scenes, instructing the board how much they are willing to fund for the next fiscal year.
The school board does not have funding authority and must rely on the County Council and executive to provide money for its operations.
His remarks put at risk the three replacement high schools — for Towson, Dulaney and Lansdowne — that the school board had wanted to build in the next several years. Olszewski said he could not afford to forward-fund construction projects as the county has done previously. Unlike other jurisdictions, such as Baltimore City, that wait for state funding until they build and renovate schools, the county had been paying upfront for the construction of schools and then later was reimbursed by the state for a portion of the project.
That strategy allowed the county to build and renovate schools at a much faster pace at a time when it needed to air-condition schools and provide more seats to keep up with its fast-paced enrollment increases.
Olszewski recently asked Gov. Larry Hogan to increase construction dollars for the county to $100 million each year for the next year five years to pay for school construction projects. Currently, the county gets about $45 million a year from the state for construction.
The board debated for more than two hours about whether to put design money into the $335 million capital budget even though the county is not likely to fund the design for years, and finally voted to approve the budget that sought planning money for three high schools.
Most education advocates in the community had praised White’s first proposed budget, saying that for the first time in years it seeks the amount of money the school system needs. They urged the school board not to scale back its operating budget request, even after Olszewski’s visit. Few advocates were in the room when White announced that she was slashing the budget.
“We need to say here is our priorities and we are not in control of the revenue,” school board member Russell Kuehn said.