Harford executive critical of school system spending priorities [Letter]


As you probably have noticed, the subject of education funding in Harford County has been a hot topic of late. And with good reason, since the education of our children and grandchildren is one of the most consequential responsibilities we have as a society. Sadly, there has been a great deal of confusion regarding how education is funded and administered in the state of Maryland, which itself is a situation that needs drastic change.

In Maryland, local Boards of Education are independent bodies created by the state to administer local public education. County governments have no oversight or direct involvement in the creation of education budgets, personnel decisions, or the general administration of the school system.

Local Boards of Education are funded by both the local jurisdictions and the State of Maryland, with a small amount of federal monies also involved. The proportion of county to state funding varies, but for Harford it is divided roughly 50-50.

While Harford County has never cut school funding from one year to the next, the state's share fluctuates based on a number of factors. For Fiscal Year 2014, Harford County Government's contribution to the school system will increase by $1.5 million, while the state is cutting its contribution by $3 million.

Since Fiscal Year 2006, Harford County Government's contribution to Harford County Public Schools has increased by 26 percent — and by 35 percent per student. In addition, county government has provided over $300 million more for school construction and renovation. Over this same time period, the Board of Education has increased its staffing levels by over 550 employees, while student enrollment has decreased by 2,500 students.

Regarding school funding for the coming year, a lot has been made of the fact that although the county's contribution increased by $1.5 million, the Board of Education asked for it to be increased by roughly $21 million. The county's projected revenue for FY 2014 is around $6 million more than last year, and some basic arithmetic shows that the request for $21 million more could not be met, even if all of the increased revenue went to schools. Despite absorbing additional state obligations and increases in the overall cost of doing business, the county still managed to allocate 25 percent of that revenue increase to our school system.

The board's request of $21 million above what we contributed last year works out to be roughly $560 more per pupil, and would have required a significant increase in taxes. If the total increase was to be funded by increasing property taxes, the increase would amount to approximately 8 percent. With some of our residents still struggling financially and given that a lot of our neighbors who work for the federal government have seen their incomes reduced by 20 percent or more due to sequestration, I decided that tax increases would not be an option.

Some have suggested that the county's contribution could be increased if the county dipped into our fund balance. But spending fund balance money on expenses that will recur and compound year after year without an offsetting revenue source is not a responsible budgeting practice for a funding authority such as county government. This is something that the state came to realize a few years ago, and then proceeded to balance their budgets on the backs of county governments and local education.

The way in which the Board of Education deals with its budget has always been peculiar. They first construct their budget based on a budget request from the county, then go back and reconcile that budget when inevitably their request is not able to be met due to financial realities. It gives the impression that the county has cut their budget when in reality it has been increased.

This year, to reconcile the difference between the increase in funds that the Board of Education requested from county government and the increase that we provided, the Board drastically altered certain transportation practices and introduced fees for participation in sports and activities, and also eliminated salary enhancements that the Board had negotiated with their employee unions prior to receiving their contribution from the county.

I do not question the Board members' dedication to education in any way. I do, however, question their judgment in this case. Were the changes in transportation practices and the introduction of sports and activity fees enacted because they would cause the least impact to students and parents, or is it the opposite? Considering the amount of money that these changes save - roughly $1.5 million out of a total budget of well over $400 million - I believe that these funds could have been easily found elsewhere in the school system's budget.

As County Executive, I realize that I have no authority under state law to tell the Board of Education how to spend the funds that the county contributes, nor can I dictate how they handle operational or personnel decisions. But as the chief executive officer of a county government that provides half of the school system's budget, I feel that I have a responsibility to the taxpaying citizens of this county, especially those who have children in public schools or who are employed by the school system.

I urge the Board to reconsider the changes they have made in reconciling their budget, and I offer my assistance and the assistance of my budget office in finding areas where these funds can be found.

Harford County Executive David R. Craig

Craig spent a career with Harford County Public Schools as a teacher and vice principal, retiring when he became county executive.

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