Harford educators plead with Craig to 'fully fund' education budget

Harford County teachers, school administrators, Board of Education members, parents and children repeatedly urged Harford County Executive David Craig Monday to "fully fund" the Harford County Public Schools budget for the upcoming fiscal year.

The requests came during a nearly four-hour public hearing on the county budget for the 2014-2015 fiscal year, which begins July 1, 2014.

Seventy people signed up to speak during the hearing, which was held at Fallston High School and drew about 175 people.

Craig and his budget staff listened intently and made notes as participants spoke, and in some cases said harsh things about Craig, accusing him of being indifferent to teachers' financial struggles despite being a former teacher and school administrator, prioritizing construction of new schools over educator pay and focusing on his 2014 campaign for governor at the expense of the county school system.

Ben White, a science teacher at Fallston, told Craig that his legacy would be "gleaming empty schools."

"Mr. Craig, I have never walked a day in your shoes as a county executive, mayor or delegate in Annapolis, and honestly I have no intentions of doing so," said Robert Rinehart, an eighth-grade social studies teacher at Southampton Middle School in Bel Air, who read from prepared remarks. "However, you have walked in our shoes. You were a classroom teacher and an administrator, and I guess you are living up to John Banner's famous line from Hogan's Heroes – ' I see nothing!' "

Several people who said they were registered Republicans said they would not support Craig, who is a Republican.

Other than a handful of comments on funding for the Sheriff's Office and Parks and Recreation, the majority of people at the hearing spoke about education issues.

Ryan Burbey, president of the local teacher's union, the Harford County Education Association, implored Craig to "please look into your soul."

"I say to you, David, take on the challenge of fixing this problem in our schools," Burbey told Craig.

Public comments were focused on the need to fund teacher salaries to meet pay scale steps that are part of the contract between teachers and the school system; the need to end consolidations to bus transportation that parents said have forced their children to walk to school in the dark and inclement weather, and to wait at "depot stops" to be picked up if they are in magnet programs, and to build walls to enclose "open classrooms" at schools such as Prospect Mill Elementary School to improve security and the learning environment.

Board of Education President Nancy Reynolds acknowledged that school enrollment has declined in recent years, but she stressed that the costs of educating the students have increased, especially with continued state mandates, the most recent being the implementation of Common Core standards and electronic PARCC tests, which require significant improvements in technology at a cost of millions of dollars.

She noted school officials have worked to save money and are always looking for more ways to cut costs.

Mary Harris, president of the Homestead-Wakefield Elementary School PTA, also spoke of the modern-day demands on teachers and students.

"Today, local schools have been encumbered with mandates from state and federal levels," she said, reading from prepared remarks. "Services like the county executive's office could not meet today's expectations on 1980s technology and staffing levels, and our children shouldn't be expected to do so either."

Teachers and administrators told stories of facing the loss of their homes, the departure of colleagues to neighboring school systems in Central Maryland and southern Pennsylvania for higher salaries and an inability to send their children to college on their current and future salaries if they stay in Harford County.

Brian Hulka, an English teacher at Fallston, apologized to his 3-year-old daughter, Kaylee, who came with him Monday night, about not being able to send her to college, that even community college would be difficult.

"Kaylee here is the big loser," he said, referring to what would happen if the school budget is not fully funded.

Craig said later that the school system budget has only been fully funded twice in history.

He also thanked audience members for their participation, but challenged them to look at the county budget and determine how best to fund all of the school system's stated needs, and determine where the extra money will come from.

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