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Cuts loom in Harford school budget to erase $17.6M 'funding gap'

Harford County’s public school system faces a $17.6 million “funding gap” in next year’s operating budget and “painful” alternatives to plug it, including job cuts, school leaders were told Monday.

A shortfall in requested county government funding – which is still budgeted to increase by more than $7 million for the 2018-19 school year – and a higher than projected increase in employee health insurance costs are the primary causes of the problem, according to the school system’s financial staff.

As in prior years, the need to reconcile what school officials have approved spending and what is available to spend from the county, state and federal governments, has unleashed a torrent of concern, particularly among 5,000 school employees, whose salaries and benefits are the operating budget’s largest expense.

A standing-room only crowd packed the Board of Education’s meeting room in Bel Air and spilled out into the hallway for a budget work session and regular board meeting that followed.

Many of those attending were teachers, who said they fear the ax will fall next on their contractually negotiated pay increases of two salary steps and a 2 percent cost of living increase for the next school year.

Most wore orange ribbons with the words “Do your part,” written on them. A few carried signs saying the same.

The teachers are in the third year of a three-year contract that provides for two steps and 2 percent each year, but implementation of the latter was delayed during the current school year because of an earlier shortfall in funding. There are almost 2,800 employees covered by the contract.

Contracts covering another 2,000 employees from custodians and clerical staff to principals, and other administrators, are typically pegged to what the teachers group is getting, so any reduction in the latter likely will have a ripple effect on other employee units.

Though no proposals were made Monday to alter any of the labor contracts, the prospect of that happening was on the minds of a dozen people who spoke at the start of the regular board meeting – 11 teachers, including their union president, and a student, who is the son of a teacher.

“I’m angry and frustrated and I feel betrayed,” said Marylisa Zoltoski, who teaches fifth grade at Emmorton Elementary. “Most of all, I am discouraged.”

“Honor your commitment,” Shannon Williams, a first-grade teacher at Forest Hill Elementary, told the board. “Do your part to support HCPS teachers.”

During the work session, proposed initial reductions, totaling $6.7 million, were presented to the board by the school system finance staff.

Included were the elimination of all remaining teacher mentor positions and many special education inclusion helper positions, as well as other staff cuts and expense reductions.

Those reductions, however, still leave a $10.9 million gap between available revenue and expenditures in the preliminary $466.2 million budget the board approved during the winter.

“None of these cuts will be easy; all of them will be painful, but we are at a point where we have no place else to go,” Debora Judd, assistant superintendent for business services, told the school board members, while warning them in advance there would still be a gap between available funding and anticipated funding.

Unlike prior years, there were no proposals to eliminate programs – such as outdoor education or swimming – or to raise student fees for athletics and other extracurricular activities.

The total position cuts proposed amount to 81 full-time equivalent employees; however, most of those affected would be absorbed by retirements and employees leaving the system for other reasons, and few would actually lose their jobs. Still, the proposed job cuts brought gasps from many in the audience.

Despite the obvious vibe in the room that in a budget where most of the expenses relate to salaries and employee benefits, more cuts will be made to the former, board President Joseph Voskuhl insisted the board has had no discussions about taking away salary step increases.

“We are faced with a monumental task,” he said, adding he had not heard one board member suggest salary step cuts in their budget discussions.

“It’s not been brought up,” Voskuhl said.

Following the meeting, Voskuhl admitted the board has not settled on a plan for dealing with the expected shortfall, while insisting again there have been no active discussions on reducing negotiated employee pay raises.

The school board president said a plan will be presented and adopted during the next scheduled meeting on Monday, June 11, the final one for the current school year – and fiscal year.

“We’re not going beyond next Monday,” he said.

Ryan Burbey, president of the Harford County Education Association, which represents teachers and counselors, said they have been not told “officially” the salary steps are on the chopping block.

“We’ve been approached to renegotiate,” he said. “And it’s not been friendly.”

Burbey said there already are differences of opinion between the union and the school administration regarding the actual cost of the group’s pay raises – $6.4 million versus $10.9 million – and whether the former amount provided by County Executive Barry Glassman in his budget can be used only for the raises, as Glassman has stated and which Burbey said there is a legal opinion to support that position.

Though Glassman and the County Council approved a $7.1 million increase in county funding for the school budget — to $245.8 million – it was about $17.7 million less than the $263.5 million school officials requested.

When speaking earlier, Burbey emotionally told the board it has other ways to deal with the shortfall, such as using prior budget surpluses, forcing all teachers to carry full course loads – thus reducing the time they spend out of the classroom on administrative chores – cutting non-teaching administrative positions and consolidating bus routes.

“You are eating your own,” he said. “There should be no reason for us to be here … we should get back on track … this is not what should be playing out. It’s just plain unfathomable.”

avought@theaegis.com

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