Harford council reviews school budget request, hears pleas for more money

Harford County Public Schools officials appealed to the members of the Harford County Council Thursday morning to fully fund their request for $241 million from the county for their Fiscal Year 2014 operating budget.

Harford County Executive David R. Craig set aside $221.3 million for public schools in his proposed county budget for FY2014, $19.7 million less than what school officials requested, but still about $1.5 million more than what the school system is receiving from the county during the current fiscal year. When he released his proposed budget two weeks ago, Craig made it a point to note the county continues to fund the school system at well above the level required by state law, typically referred to as maintenance of effort.

"It's very important to all of us that we continue to maintain a high-quality education system," Nancy Reynolds, vice president of the county's board of education, told council members during their budget work session in Bel Air.

Reynolds, along with Superintendent Robert Tomback, school system Budget Director Edward Fields and Chief of Administration Joe Licata, presented the operating budget request, as well as a projected $60.1 million capital budget, for council review.

She stressed her understanding that county officials must make funding decisions in a difficult economic climate.

"In light of that, we're presenting you with a fiscally responsible budget, which truly reflects the need to provide our students [with quality education]," Reynolds said.

The leaders of HCPS sought the increased county funding in pat to make up a shortfall of about $4 million in state funding, as well as increased costs of transportation, special education student needs, employee benefits and pensions and more. About $7.7 million of the requested increase from the county will fund raises negotiated with unions representing 5,200 school employees, including teachers.

Tomback told council members school officials are also working to increase teacher salaries – he noted wages are "10 percent behind the local market."

The total proposed HCPS budget for FY 2014 is $469.3 million, $14 million more than the current year's $455.3 million budget. The county, however, is being asked to make up the shortfall in revenue from the state plus much more. Craig had also noted earlier this month that his proposed budget did not provide for any raises next fiscal year for county government employees and law enforcement personnel.

The school system operates 54 schools in Harford County and serves more than 38,000 students.

More than 50 percent

If fully funded, the county's allocation would cover 51.3 percent of next year's school budget. State funds cover 43 percent, and federal nearly 4 percent. The remaining $8.2 million is covered by fund balance and other sources of revenue, according to budget documents provided during the work session.

Reynolds said school officials have worked to increase efficiency and control costs – budget documents showed 76 positions have been eliminated since the 2012 fiscal year, leaving HCPS with 5,108.8 total personnel.

She said reductions in the amount requested from the county would hurt the school system's ability to deliver educational services at the current level.

"We can no longer do more with less, or even maintain with less," Reynolds explained.

Councilman Dion Guthrie asked Tomback how school officials are "weighing reductions versus a flatline budget."

Guthrie explained later that a "flatline budget" would mean the schools were funded at the same level as the current year.

Tomback replied that a "flat budget" would not cover increased school system expenses.

Business services costs, including $1.5 million more for employee pensions in the wake of the state requiring local school districts to take on more pension costs, are projected to rise by $2.5 million next year.

Even with the county executive giving the schools less than they requested, education expenses – including $221.3 million for HCPS, $14.9 million for Harford Community College and $80,000 for the School for the Blind – takes up 48 percent of the county's FY 2014 budget, and is the largest line item in the budget.

The next-largest line item in the proposed $493.8 million county budget is public safety, at $96.1 million, followed by $82.7 million for general government, $49.3 million for debt service and $16 million for libraries.

"In order for us to reinstate your original request, we have to make reductions in other areas of the budget," Council President Billy Boniface told school officials.

Council members did not indicate during Thursday's meeting if any funds would be reinstated. By state law, the council can restore any of requested county funding that was eliminated by the county executive.

Capital projects

School officials also presented a $60.1 million capital budget, to cover 18 ongoing projects at various stages.

Major sources of capital project funding include the state and county debt service.

Projects include HVAC upgrades at Magnolia Middle School, North Harford Elementary School, Norrisville Elementary School and Fallston High School, a roof replacement at George D. Lisby Elementary School in Aberdeen, stadium upgrades at Joppatowne High School, plus upgrades to the computer lab at Edgewood Middle School.

School officials also plan to fund a $4.8 million energy efficiency initiative, put $100,000 toward disabled access improvements, $350,000 for playground equipment and $1.2 million to replace school buses.

Major projects include $15 million toward the replacement of Youth's Benefit Elementary School in Fallston, $3.7 million toward the replacement of Havre de Grace High School and $13.6 million toward systemic upgrades at Joppatowne High School.

Licata, who presented the capital budget, said the state had granted planning approval to the replacement of Youth's Benefit, which will allow HCPS to complete the remainder of the design process.

Licata said the planning process was about 90 percent completed before the project was "deferred" in recent years.

He said the remaining design procedures, which involve updating plans so they conform to current state and county environmental codes, could take up to a year. Once the plans are complete and approved by the state, and all necessary permits are in hand, then the project would be eligible for construction funding.

"We're not eligible for state funding this year in terms of construction, because they won't grant funding that's going to sit in a fiscal year, so we're in the pipeline to receive the first installment of construction funds for Youth's Benefit in FY 2015," Licata told council members.

Councilman Richard Slutzky noted the process of replacing Youth's Benefit has been ongoing for 16 to 17 years.

Council members reviewed the Health Department budget Thursday afternoon, and are scheduled to have two more budget work sessions next week. The entire county budget must be approved by mid-June.

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