Calls for better teacher pay, smaller classes, more staff diversity highlight final Harford school budget session

Members of the public reiterated requests Monday night that they and others have made throughout Harford County Public Schools’ fiscal 2019 budget process — funding contractually-obligated teacher pay increases, reducing class sizes and supporting diversity and cultural education programs.

It was the final budget work session hosted by the Board of Education before it votes Feb. 12 on the budget proposed by Superintendent Barbara Canavan.

“If we are here, showing up, we expect you to listen and feel that our voices are heard and reflected in the budget document,” Abingdon resident Rachel Ashbrook said.

Ashbrook said she is disappointed next year’s budget does not include more funding for matters such as cultural awareness programs throughout the curriculum or hiring for teachers of color, following the public outcry last fall after a handful of Bel Air High School students took a photo of themselves spelling out a racial slur.

“People have been showing up since October communicating to you and the rest of the board members that we expect diversity in our schools that we expect it to be a priority and this document does not represent that expectation that the public had,” she said.

“The public has come out, you now have to follow through,” she said.

Caravan has proposed a $466.1 million operating budget for next year, a $20.1 million increase over this year’s budget. The spending increase includes more than $15 million for two step increases and a 2 percent COLA for more than 5,000 HCPS employees.

The board can adjust the superintendent’s request before sending it to the county executive, and some members have become increasingly restive in that regard in recent years. Last winter, the board removed from the 2018 budget an unpopular student drama participation fee and added funding to maintain the interscholastic swimming program, repair pools and restore overnight visits to the Harford Glen Environmental Education Center, all over Canavan’s objections.

This year a handful of board members sought more control over the budget process from start to finish, citing Canvan’s habit of asking for increases in county funding support that those board members say is unrealistic. A majority of the board rebuffed those efforts; however, last week the board refused its president’s attempts to finalize the budget, requesting instead that Monday’s input session be held, before any final vote is taken.

Monday’s session was the third work or input session the school board held in this year’s budget process, in addition to also discussing the budget at its regular meeting in January. There were nine speakers combined at the three input/work sessions.

Ryan Burbey, president of the Harford County Education Association, the local teachers’ union, spoke at two of the sessions, including Monday’s, when he criticized the amount of money HCPS spends on administration versus classroom instruction.

Burbey said funds would be better spent to hire additional support staff, especially at schools with more at-risk students that have greater discipline issues, to which the school system has been responding with additional administrators.

“I can tell you that the biggest impact you’re going to have is through support personnel, teachers, school psychologists and counselors,” he said.

Delane Lewis, founder of Together We Will-Harford County/Upper Chesapeake, urged greater funding for cultural awareness and anti-bias training. She suggested redirecting administrative staff or bringing in contractors to do that.

“Everybody has their own biases that they need to understand and be aware of, and that is something I think you all should be helping the administration and the staff of the schools do,” Lewis said.

The board also heard from Chloe and Connor Gauthier, who are the daughter and son of member Rachel Gauthier and are HCPS students.

“Teachers are one of the most important things in school, and in order for schools to continue being the best they can be, you need to pay teachers enough money,” Chloe, a sixth-grader at Southampton Middle School in Bel Air, said.

Chloe said there are 32 students in her language arts class, creating tight quarters in the classroom.

“We have to climb over each other to move around, and we can’t really move a lot without running into something,” she said.

“I think you need to hire more teachers and staff of color so that all of my friends can see grown-ups just like them, doing all kinds of jobs so that way they know that they can do anything when they grow up,” Connor, a third-grader at Prospect Mill Elementary said.

Monday’s work session, which lasted slightly longer than 30 minutes, included board members’ questions to budget and finance staff about how the 2 percent COLA, part of the three-year agreement between the school board and the teachers’ union to increase teacher wages, will be distributed.

Deborah Judd, assistant superintendent for business services, illustrated how a 2 percent COLA is paid out to one 12-month employee over fiscal 2018.

An employee making $50,000 would see a $1,000 increase in his or her salary with the COLA, according to Judd’s example, with the first $500 coming in the second half of fiscal 2018 beginning Jan 2018 and the second $500 carries over into fiscal 2019, according to Judd.

“If there’s no other salary changes, we need to still budget an additional $500 in FY19 in order to pay this [theoretical] employee the same bi-weekly rate through every pay period in FY19 so that we pay them a total amount of $51,000,” she said.

The school system needs an additional $2.4 million in fiscal 2019 to cover just the salary increases from fiscal 2018, assuming there are no other salary changes, Judd said.

“That is the salary commitment that we’ve made in FY18 that will carry forward, so no matter what happens with the negotiated wage agreement, this will remain in place,” she said.

Rachel Gauthier asked about line items for the business services department, such as $40,000 for bank fees, $24,000 for investment consulting services and $14,480 for conferences and meetings.

Judd said the bank fees cover any fees the school system’s bank might charge during the year, the financial consultants provide investment advice regarding employees’ deferred-compensation retirement plans and business services staff attend conferences such as quarterly meetings hosted by the Maryland Government Finance Officers Association.

Gauthier also asked about $441,000 for curriculum development. Susan Brown, executive director of curriculum, instruction and assessment, said the funds cover teachers and supervisors who work on writing curriculum throughout the school year and during the summer and work afternoons, evenings and some weekends.

This story is updated from an earlier version with a correction about how the cost of living adjustment for employees is implemented.

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