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Where's the cash? [Editorial]

The Aegis

Dr. Sean Bulson, the new superintendent of Harford County Public Schools, acknowledges the school system is facing difficult decisions in the next few months when it comes to its budget and, folks, this is not news in Harford County (or most other jurisdictions when it comes to school budgets).

Discussing work on his first budget – which will cover the 2019-20 school year – Bulson said there is a projected fund balance of $4 million in the current year’s budget and he needs to find enough money to also cover the $11 million in fund balance used mainly to cover the employee pay raises and increased health insurance costs in this budget — costs that will recur and, most likely, increase next year.

“We can still figure out our priorities,” Bulson said at the Sept. 24 Board of Education meeting. “But anything we add we’re going to have to do with off-setting cuts. That’s the hardest part of this job.”

Well, if this sounds familiar, it should be, because if you close your eyes, every Harford superintendent dating back to Charles W. Willis in the 1950s and 1960s, if not Willis’ predecessor C. Milton Wright, has made almost identical pronouncements.

It’s the superintendent’s job, never easy as Bulson so correctly points out, to set spending priorities and then find money to fund them and, if necessary, to reduce spending on less essential needs — though we’ve yet to find a superintendent, or parent, or student, who doesn’t believe every penny spent is essential, especially if it’s a particular aspect of the school experience that impacts them directly.

But here’s another familiar refrain of HCPS officials (or other systems) and it was made at the same school board meeting by one of the system’s chief financial officers:

“We are in a very dangerous situation,” Assistant Superintendent for Business Services Deborah Judd said as she presented her quarterly financial report. According to Judd, with 98.98 percent of last year’s budget spent, there’s a projected surplus of just $4 million, pending the release of the final audit this fall.

In addition to obligating prior and anticipated surplus funds to cover the pay and health care increases in the current budget, Bulson said health care costs are expected to rise next year and Judd said there may be additional health care claims in the current budget that were not foreseen.

Back in June, when the school board and Bulson’s predecessor, Barbara Canavan, held an all-nighter to hammer out the final budget for this school year, the outgoing superintendent warned that dipping so far into the fund balance — essentially a recurring pot of money that carries over from year to year — would risk calamity. Particularly so, she said, if a major system in a school building were to fail, and Harford has plenty of older school buildings, or if fuel prices were to spike in advance of a hard winter. (While we can’t say with any certainty a hard winter is coming, it’s pretty clear fuel prices are spiking and will continue to do so.)

School board member Al Williamson, who crafted last spring’s final budget deal – and then refused to vote for it because he said he wasn’t satisfied they had done enough and that they could still save teacher support positions that ended up being cut — has maintained the school administration plays what amounts to a shell game with the fund balance, which appears spent down on June 30, the last day of the school year, and then magically balloons by multiple millions on July 1, when the new year begins.

We’ve seen those kinds of numbers, too, and not just in past HCPS financial reports. The county government’s finances annually ride a similar roller coaster, which is not to say either one doesn’t need sufficient funds on hand to cover a dire emergency, or several. They do, but this also comes down to a matter of financial transparency — or if your wish, the multimillion dollar question – how much money was actually in the bank and not obligated to be spent on anything on July 1, 2018 – when the current school year’s budget started? And, how much will be left over when this budget ends and the next one begins?

No doubt there will be multiple explanations about why money here can’t be spent, and this money there is needed to pay bills that haven’t come in and more needs to be kept for this contingency — and it goes on and on and on.

What we want to see is the bottom line — how much did you actually have? When that question is answered fairly and clearly, then we’ll start worrying about the next impending HCPS financial crisis and whether it’s real, or just imagined for effect.

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