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Harford school officials, County Council at odds over budget transfer request for technology purchases

A series of $2.6 million in transfers within the current Harford County Public Schools budget that were approved last week by the Board of Education has caused consternation among Harford County Council members who must also sign off on such requests.

Although three of the four transfers were eventually approved at the council's final May meeting on May 23, the budgetary shifts provoked considerable discussion and questions from the seven council members.

The council also postponed a vote on the fourth, and most expensive, transfer of $2.1 million for classroom technology purchases in order to have more time to review and discuss the request. The matter will be taken up at the June 6 meeting, members said.

The money being transferred comes from one-time savings found in this year's FY 2017 budget, a process school system officials go through toward the end of each fiscal year, according to Eric Clark, budget director for HCPS, who said unless the council moved the money around as requested, some parts of the budget would be out of balance and thus would violate state law.

But the timing of the request couldn't be worse for school officials, who once again sought another large increase in county funding in their 2018 budget – $18.1 million – which Harford County Executive Barry Glassman and the council pared down to $5.2 million in the final county budget approved last week.

Extra administrators

Clark told council members a transfer of $320,000 in the school budget's mid-level administration category is needed to cover the extra costs of bringing in substitute administrators to cover for those who have gone out on leave, some for disciplinary reasons and others through the federal Family and Medical Leave Act, as well as needing extra assistant principals to handle issues at a secondary school, which was not identified.

"This has been a year where we've had multiple leaves, where we've had to cover the additional salaries," said Mary Edmunds, an HCPS budget analyst who presented the transfer requests with Clark.

She and Clark acknowledged the high number of leaves for administrators is not a regular occurrence.

"There will always be times when someone is out on leave for whatever reason, but we've had enough surplus in the account to cover any excess [salary] that we've had to pay," she said. "This is a year where we do not."

Clark stressed this transfer needed to be approved as soon as possible because the school system had "overspent" in that category, and it must be balanced before the current fiscal year ends June 30.

Councilman Joe Woods asked Clark what the penalties could be if the account were not balanced. Clark replied that he does not know, as HCPS has not been in this situation before, but he does not want to find out.

"I certainly don't want to be the first one in the budget office to let it happen," he said.

Clark said the money is being transferred from unspent salaries for positions where there has been turnover, and from money not spent on contractual services for technology issues, issues that HCPS staff do not have the time or expertise to handle.

Council members questioned needing more administrators to shore up the secondary school, but they approved it because of the transfer's time-sensitive nature.

"Is the answer really more assistant principals?" Councilman Chad Shrodes asked.

He suggested bringing in more guidance counselors, mentors or "folks in the law enforcement community that can come in and help straighten out the situation."

The council approved the transfer request 6-1; Woods cast the lone negative vote.

He said he was concerned about money being transferred from salaries, even with Clark's explanation that the money is unpaid wages.

"I know what principals and upper-level management make, and knowing that $320,000 could potentially affect a lot of people on the lower-level jobs... it bothers me," Woods said.

The school system also needed to transfer $20,000 within the career and technology education budget at the request of supervisor Robert Limpert, who wanted to shift money from purchasing supplies to purchasing badly-needed technology for CTE classes.

The council voted 7-0 for that request.

Harford Glen equipment

The third transfer approved last week, for $160,000, would cover purchasing a generator and dryers needed to resume overnight stays for fifth-graders at the Harford Glen Environmental Education Center.

The money had been in the operating budget to cover paying teachers to stay overnight, as well as a part-time nurse staying overnight and food for evening meals, had the overnight visits been restored this school year, which they were not.

That money was appropriated on an amendment introduced by school board member Joseph Hau last spring as the board was reconciling the budget. Many angry parents and students pushed for restoration of the environmental center's overnight program in the face of stiff opposition from Superintendent Barbara Canavan.

Clark explained to council members that the money was available with the caveat that overnight visits could resume this year if HCPS officials could find money in the capital budget to buy the new generator and dryers.

That did not happen, however, and Councilman Jim McMahan questioned the reasoning behind the plan.

"We knew we didn't have a generator, we knew the dyers needed replacement, yet we put $160,000 in there to try to get the program up and running," McMahan said.

Fifth-graders have not been able to stay over at Harford Glen for the past two years after Canavan declined to fund the overnight stays during the 2015 budget process because of concerns about infrastructure that was too costly to fix, as well as a bedbug issue.

Hau, as well as supporters of Harford Glen,have been advocates of restoring those visits, a longtime tradition for Harford County fifth-graders.

With the approval of the transfer, school system officials expect to have a purchase ready for school board approval by next month, and then the overnight program would be ready to go by the start of the next school year, according to Clark.

Clark stressed to council members that money is in next year's budget for instructional salaries and other operating costs for the overnights.

The council voted 6-1 to approve the $160,000 transfer request; Woods cast the lone negative vote.

Technology transfer postponed

The council decided to postpone voting on the final request to transfer $2.1 million — much of it savings in fuel and energy expenses thanks to a mild winter — to purchase new classroom technology, so members could do their "due diligence," in the words of McMahan, who had unsuccessfully sought to postpone the vote on the administrators funding transfer, as well.

Council members and Drew Moore, director of technology for HCPS, debated whether the school system should purchase new technology that quickly becomes outdated or lease it on a short-term basis.

"While I support providing students and educators with the latest technology, it concerns me that we're requesting one-time money for an ever-changing industry," Shrodes said.

Councilman Curtis Beulah noted that "it just looks like we're putting a Band Aid on a bullet wound and we're wasting money in the process."

Moore stressed he has "been on the lease bandwagon for years," but he said he would need an annual commitment of capital funding from the county executive that would cover lease payments — little money has been allocated in the county's capital budget in recent years for technology upgrades, despite requests of significant investment from the school system.

Glassman has allocated $1 million in the fiscal 2018 capital budget for school technology infrastructure. The council approved the county's operating and capital budgets May 23.

"I could not in good faith enter a lease agreement, a contract, for four years and then in year two, all of a sudden we don't have the money to pay that lease," Moore said.

Moore said 34 percent of classroom technology inventory is getting close to 7 years old.

"It's getting to a point where I can no longer buy parts to repair what we have," he said.

About 30 percent of HCPS phone systems are 20 years old, as well, according to Moore.

The discussion over budget transfers lasted nearly one hour and 20 minutes.

McMahan acknowledged that the debate got tense at times.

"To the people who watch these televised meetings, what you saw tonight was your County Council not being an adversary but being inquisitive, and I hope that the Board of Education understands that we just need to be clear on the finances and the money that comes from the taxpayers of this county," he said.

Board questions, too

The school board had approved the first three transfer requests during its May 22 meeting with near-unanimous support — board member Robert Frisch voted against the transfer for administrators' salaries.

The fourth request, for technology spending, also prompted questions from some board members about whether the $2.1 million should be allowed to roll over into the operating fund balance at the end of the fiscal year and then be appropriated for teachers' salaries.

"My concern with spending the money right now is, I want to make sure we have the teachers' salaries covered," board member Rachel Gauthier said.

Deborah Judd, assistant superintendent for business services, warned against using fund balance for recurring expenses, plus any appropriation of fund balance after the start of the fiscal year would need to be approved by the county executive and County Council, in addition to the school board.

The board approved the request 8-2, with negative votes from Gauthier and board member Laura Runyeon and an affirmative preferential vote from student representative Amanda Dorsey.

The school board is set to go to work on reconciling the final FY18 budget, which must be completed by June 30.

Budget work sessions are scheduled for June 8 and June 12 at 6 p.m. in the A.A. Roberty Building, the school system's headquarters in Bel Air.

The FY18 unrestricted operating budget approved by Canavan and the board last winter was set at $456.06 million. With county revenues some $12 million less than requested, some reductions in spending are expected.

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