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Harford school board members leaning toward increase in superintendent's budget request to county

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There’s a consensus among many members of the Harford County Board of Education that the school system’s budget request being sent to the county executive should be for more than the $467.7 million the superintendent has proposed.

How much more remains to be determined, though several said somewhere between $2 million and $4 million, which would enable the school system to reduce the number of teaching position being eliminated.

What they really need to do, others said, is work with the entire school community to look long-term at what kind of school system Harford County wants to have.

“If you want quality schools, you’re going to have to pay for them,” board member Nancy Reynolds said. “We need to come up with a plan of what kind of school do you want. Not just today, but in five and 10 years, and then we have to come up with a method to provide funding for them.”

In his first budget as superintendent, Sean Bulson has proposed a $467.7 million operating budget for the next fiscal year, an increase of $10 million over this year. It’s a reasonable request and is relatively confident it will be fulfilled, he has said. It’s also what the school system can afford if that’s how much funding the school system gets.

With that budget proposal comes a plan to eliminate 153 instructional positions and 26 administrative positions within the schools. It has created an uproar among students, parents, teachers and school staff, many of whom expressed their displeasure during a two-hour budget input session Monday night.

The board could vote as early as Monday on the budget request to send to County Executive Barry Glassman, but could delay a vote until its Feb. 25 meeting. The request must be sent to the county executive by March 1.

This year’s requested increase of $10 million over last year is higher than any recent county executive had given the school system, school board president Joseph Voskuhl said.

“Everybody can see what that means,” Voskuhl said. “To me it means the county does not fund education.”

Even so, many board members said they have to ask for an even greater increase than what the superintendent has proposed.

“Based on comments I heard Monday night, what I have heard, what constituents said to us, is they want us to ask the county executive for more,” board member Jansen Robinson said. “I can’t in good conscience not listen to my constituents. They said ask for more and we’ll help you fight for it. I think that is completely reasonable, and it’s something I think all of my colleagues should consider.”

He suggested somewhere between $2 million to $4 million in addition to the $10 million Bulson has already asked for, to keep teaching positions.

The Harford County Council, which ultimately approves the county executive’s budget, cannot fund education for more than is requested, according to Cindy Mumby, spokesperson for Harford County government. If the board requests a $10 million increase, the council can’t give it any more than that.

Glassman can’t say no if the board doesn’t ask, Robinson said.

“If we don’t ask for more, I think we shoot ourselves in the foot. We’ve lost an opportunity,” he said.

If school board members were to increase Bulson’s proposed request, they would have to make sure it’s a reasonable one, they said.

“It will be modest, not anything that’s a deal breaker,” board member Al Williamson said.

“I want to be realistic.What do we have a chance of getting?” board member Rachel Gauthier said. “Certainly nothing more than $5 million but probably more like $2 million to $3 million more.”

The last several years, the school board has asked for increases between $25 million and $40 million, none of which has ever been fully funded, which has meant the school board made last-minute cuts in June to balance its budget before the start of the new fiscal year July 1.

“The entire time I’ve been on the board, we’ve gotten a 1.5 percent to 1.75 percent increase,” Tom Fitzpatrick said.

While $2 million to $4 million additional might not be a lot when considering a $487 million budget request, “it gives a signal, psychologically, that we’re doing the best we can,” Williamson said.

Every $1 million over the $10 million increase would allow the school system to keep about 15 teaching positions, according to Jillian Lader, manager of communications for Harford County Public Schools.

Impact of cutting teaching positions

Cuts in staffing go back many years, Reynolds said.

When she began as principal at Bel Air Middle, the school could offer students three full-time language programs. When she left 10 years later, only one program, an eight-week introductory program, was offered.

“That’s an impact for the kids,” Reynolds said.

“I know how devastating the budget is going to be to the schools, just on the instructional side, it’s going to have a negative impact,” she said.

In making the instructional cuts, which are spread throughout the schools in the system, the superintendent “has leveled the playing field,” Williamson said.

When you look at the students who spoke at the input session Monday night, they were all from three high schools, he said. Students from Fallston, North Harford and Patterson Mill were talking about programs none of the other high schools in Harford have, like art, drama and music.

“I understand their comments, people are losing alternative courses and it’s devastating on those kids,” Williamson said. “I’m very empathetic with the people it affects, but on balance it’s absolutely the right thing to do.”

Additional money needs to go back to teaching and administrative positions, Gauthier said.

“We have constituents and they came to talk. No matter what area I represent, these are all our people, this is our village, we are the community,” she said. “It’s very clear people are very concerned about the half assistant principal several of the schools are going to end up with.”

Looking forward

Other counties don’t face the same problems Harford County does, Fitzpatrick said, and they rank much higher in per pupil spending, whereas Harford is near the bottom.

“We get a lot more bang for our buck, the results come back good and we’re generally ranked pretty high in the state,” he said. “But in terms of funding, we’re right at the bottom.”

The school system really needs to look down the road and decide what it wants to be, Fitzpatrick and Reynolds said.

“In the next few years we have to make serious decisions if we want to pay for a good public school system,” Fitzpatrick, whose term on the board ends this summer, said. “We need to be asking, long-term, of where we want Harford County to be 20 years from now.”

“We have shown our elected officials what $10 million will do. They’re telling us we have to be more efficient? We are efficient,” Voskuhl said. “It costs money to educate kids, that’s the bottom line.”

Reynolds said she hopes the community attends Monday night’s school board meeting.

“I’m anxious to hear what they have to say, they’re the ones directly impacted,” said Reynolds, who still has a grandson in high school in Harford County. “We have an obligation to provide the best possible education for these kids who come in our doors and we only have one shot to do it. As a community, that’s our obligation to our children.”

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