The Harford County Board of Education got a standing ovation from an overflow crowd Monday night after its unanimous approval of using more than $552,000 in the school system's fund balance to save swimming and to keep its three pools operating for the next year.
Funding swimming and restoring overnight stays to Harford Glen, the outdoor education program, were part of the amended $438.6 million operating budget the school board unanimous approved during its marathon six-hour meeting that began at 6:30 p.m. Monday and adjourned at 12:30 a.m. Tuesday.
The majority of the crowd, which filled the school board meeting room and the adjoining foyer in the A.A. Roberty Building in Bel Air, was there to plead with board members to continue funding operating expenses for the pools and the interscholastic swimming program, which totals $552,293.
Harford County Public Schools officials proposed closing the pools and eliminating interscholastic swimming, in which 315 out of more than 37,500 HCPS students participate, as part of a series of measures proposed to balance the operating budget for fiscal 2017. As part of saving the swimming program, the school board also voted to increase the pay to play participation fee from $50 per sport, per athlete to $100. The board also voted to include those participating in drama programs to be among those students required to pay $100 to participate in an activity.
Advocates, including high school swimmers, parents and coaches, have pointed out that thousands of students also use the pools at Edgewood, Magnolia and North Harford middle schools each year for swim lessons in the summer and swimming during the school year for physical education classes.
People stood in the rear of the meeting room, which has a capacity of 175, holding homemade signs with slogans such as "#saveswim!!!" and "why don't you cut your job instead [Superintendent] Barbara Canavan."
"My team is my family, they have helped me ... it is the only place in the school were I can feel safe, not judged and really open myself up," Coby Bracken, a Fallston High School freshman, told board members.
His teammate and fellow freshman, Andrew Nicolaus, said "my team has become my family."
"Harford County is united as one, and we will get through any challenge that needs to be faced," Andrew said.
Board member Alfred Williamson made a motion to keep all three pools open for the next year using part of the school system's fund balance, and prompted concern from HCPS budget and finance officials and other board members about depleting what they call the school system's savings account. The fund balance is money left over at the end of each fiscal year and traditionally saved for catastrophic emergencies, not annual operating expenses, school officials said.
"You do not want to assign expenditures to be funded by fund balance for recurring items," Deborah Judd, assistant superintendent for business services, said. "That is what we do not want to do because that is a savings account."
The board approved using some of the unassigned fund balance for one year's operation of the pools, as well as $271,453 in additional fund balance to restore one year of operations for fifth-grade overnight stays at the Harford Glen Environmental Education Center.
The board cut operational funding for the overnight program, a long-standing tradition for HCPS fifth graders, last year to not only help balance the budget, but also because of concerns from Canavan about expensive repairs, including generators and getting rid of bedbugs, needed for the facilities at Harford Glen.
Board member Joseph Hau made the motion to restore Harford Glen funding, which also got unanimous approval, plus a smattering of applause from the audience.
"We can't continue to pay for an overnight program at Harford Glen with fund balance," Canavan cautioned.
The fund balance spending was offset by $50,000, as the board approved increasing sports participation fees, or "pay to play," from $50 to $100 and charging students $100 each to take part in extracurricular drama productions – board Vice President Joe Voskuhl made a motion to add the $100 fee for drama, which was approved.