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Harford council approves school system's request to transfer $2.1 million for technology purchases

A request to transfer $2.1 million within the Harford County Public Schools' operating budget for technology purchases was approved 5-2 by the County Council earlier this week, two weeks after the council postponed taking a vote to get more information from school officials.

The money comes from savings in the fiscal 2017 budget that were found within the areas of transportation, fuel, utilities, custodial and maintenance. It will be used to purchase badly-needed classroom technology, HCPS officials said.

School officials stressed to council members the need for technology funds, even though Harford County Executive Barry Glassman has earmarked funds in next year's capital budget to buy school computers, software and other equipment.

One council member noted such year-end transfers for this purpose have been taking place for at least seven years.

Councilman Mike Perrone said the council approved a $2.4 million transfer last year, and there have been transfers approved every year since fiscal 2011, the rest in the tens or hundreds of thousands of dollars.

"When we see seven years in a row of moving money into this category, that troubles me," he said.

Perrone and Councilman Joe Woods voted against the transfer, which was approved at Tuesday's council meeting.

Perrone suggested the money would be put to better use if allowed to lapse into the school system's operating fund balance, and the Board of Education could then transfer from fund balance in the fiscal 2018 budget to support pay increases for teachers, a long-running issue between the teachers' union and the school board.

"A good teacher can make up for lack of technology, but I don't think that really goes the other way," Perrone said.

Councilman Jim McMahan, who made the initial request for more time to review the transfer, countered that Harford students will be required in the coming years to take state standardized tests online, and up-to-date technology is critical. HCPS officials have made the same argument.

"When the state or federal government, or whoever, dictates and says, 'You have to have one of these [devices] in front of this kid, or he's not going to take the test,' you all are falling behind," he said of the school system.

At their May 23 meeting, council members had grilled HPCS budget and technology officials about the transfer for technology and three other "inter-category" budget transfers requested by the school system.

The funds for the transfers came from savings found within the operating budget as school system officials went through their traditional end-of-the-year review. The current fiscal year ends June 30, and the next fiscal year begins July 1.

The council approved the first three transfers but postponed voting on the transfer for technology for more time to review it.

There was extensive debate during the previous meeting over whether the schools should lease devices such as computers or tablets or purchase them.

The school system has been requesting capital funds from the county each year to replace aging technology, but little funding has been made available, HCPS representatives said Tuesday, also noting that one-time uses for the fund balance, such as they proposed, are more acceptable than using it for recurring expenses, such as employee salaries.

Perrone, however, noted that what has happened with the technology funding transfers amounts to recurring.

Glassman allocated $1 million for next year for school technology infrastructure, although the school board's capital improvement program for fiscal 2018 includes a request of $7 million to "refresh" or purchase new technology equipment.

Tuesday's vote came about after more discussion between council members and school officials, this time Superintendent Barbara Canavan, Chief of Administration Joseph Licata and Deborah Judd, assistant superintendent for business services. In addition, council members said the issues they had with the computer funding transfer had been discussed individually with HCPS officials over the previous two weeks.

"The money for the devices, for the hardware, comes from the capital budget, but since we didn't get any capital money we had to transfer or use operating money from other accounts, that I'll call fund balance or surplus," Licata said.

Perrone stressed he understands the complexity of budgeting for an organization as large as Harford County Public Schools — the system serves about 37,500 students, has about 5,000 employees and had an operating budget of nearly $439 million this year.

The school board has a request of $456.06 million for next year's operating budget that it must reconcile with lower-than-anticipated revenues from the county and the state.

"I would fully expect that you would come to us with probably a large number of requests every year because there's a lot of categories," Perrone said.

He noted the school board must transfer money from its fund balance, or cash reserves, to balance the budget each year, and the $2.1 million would have gone into the fund balance had the council not approved the transfer.

"That looks to me like a good thing because that would offset some of the draining of fund balance that's been taking place," he said.

Judd told council members using fund balance to reconcile the operating budget is not considered "a fiscally prudent thing to continue to do."

"We would prefer to make that number smaller each year so that we're not having to rely on fund balance," she said.

Judd said it is appropriate to use fund balances and surpluses for one-time expenditures, noting the "capital intensive" needs of the school system for regular replacement of items such as technology and buses.

"As those surpluses go down, and we continue to pull out those funds out of each of those line items each year, there will not be surplus available to do this at some point," she warned.

Council members and school officials noted they had worked to share information following the grilling at the May 23 meeting — McMahan said he and Council President Richard Slutzky met with Canavan and her top aides the next morning at the school system headquarters in Bel Air.

"I thank you, Mrs. Canavan, for making that happen for us so we better understood what you needed, McMahan said.

Councilman Patrick Vincenti noted "you eat, sleep and breathe this every day, we don't, so the more that you can do to make us understand what's before us I think we will all benefit."

"We're accountable to the kids, and that's what its all about, he said.

Canavan said the council and school system have had a strong working relationship in the past, and she urged cooperation to continue.

"The bottom line is, all you need to do is make a call and I will make sure that people are convened," she said.

Administrators on leave

The council approved the first three transfers — $320,000 to support mid-level school administrators, professional salaries and clerical overtime, $160,000 for equipment to help restore overnight stays at the Harford Glen Environmental Education Center and $20,000 to purchase classroom technology specifically for career and technology education classes — May 23.

The $320,000 transfer was requested because a number of principals and assistant principals have been out on leave this year, requiring the hiring of substitutes, plus Edgewood Middle School has needed support from more administrators.

Seventeen school-based administrators have taken leave since July 1, 2016, and two remain on leave, HCPS spokesperson Jillian Lader wrote in an email Monday.

"Due to the approved leave of the [Edgewood Middle] principal beginning in February, an acting principal is serving the school until the end of the year," Lader continued.

"In an effort to support the students and staff with this mid-year transition, it was determined that bringing additional administrative support on board to support the school community through the end of the school year would be best," she wrote.

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