The Howard County Board of Education voted Tuesday morning to approve an operating budget for next year, despite requests from two of its members to delay the decision and make time for more information gathering and discussion.
"I will be abstaining from voting if what we are doing [today] is making these cuts," said board member Bess Altwerger, to applause from audience members. "I will stop there."
Altwerger and Cindy Vaillancourt said they had sent budget-related questions to school system staff that remained unanswered, including a request for more information about next year's contract costs.
Vaillancourt said she was "very confused" as to why approval had to happen on Tuesday without an opportunity to closely examine staff's proposed adjustments to funding levels that were passed last week by the Howard County Council.
"This is theater of the absurd, to be submitting things as approved just because we had to," Vaillancourt said.
School officials told Vaillancourt that the board must submit its finalized budget to the Maryland Department of Education within 30 days from the council's budget approval last week.
"We aren't even at a week since the County Council approved their budget," Vaillancourt said. "If we have 30 days, why are we rushing to do this today?"
Board member Ellen Flynn Giles said that voting Tuesday was necessary in order to be ready for the start of school in the fall.
"We have to have plans for how we can do this," she said. "We can't start a month from now, or we've already obligated monies that we can't get back."
Despite Altwerger and Vaillancourt's concerns, which were discussed after approval of the school system's fiscal 2017 capital budget, the board moved forward with voting on the operating budget. Altwerger abstained and Vaillancourt voted no on a majority of the budget categories, all of which were approved by a majority vote of the board members.
Superintendent Renee Foose, who urged members to move forward with voting because of the Centennial High School graduation taking place on Tuesday morning, suggested that the meeting would not be the end of the budgetary process.
Foose and school finance director Beverly Davis have said that this fall, once the school system's budget has been adopted, the board will have to request permission from the County Council to shift funds between categories.
Within the county's budget, the board does not have the authority to transfer funds from one category to another, but members can vote to shift funds within each category.
"We're going to balance our budget today," Foose said. "That still leaves us $48 million short and not able to operate our school system. There will be a second round of cuts."
The County Council approved County Executive Allan Kittleman's $808.4 million budget for the county's schools on May 26, amid calls from school officials for increased funding. The school board's budget request had totaled $856 million.
Davis has said that Kittleman's allocation of $157 million to the operating budget category that funds employee benefits — $39 million less than the board requested — will lead to a $12 million to $15 million deficit and will require "devastating" cuts.
"I have not in my 35 years of being a PTA volunteer and board member ever seen this kind of unacceptable reduction," board member Sandra French said, through tears, at Tuesday's meeting.
Critics of the school system and members of the County Council have cast doubt about the accuracy of the projection, as well as the level of transparency in the overall school budget. Last week, County Council Chairman Calvin Ball called for an audit on education spending in the county and the creation of a committee to oversee the system's budget.
In a letter sent to the community on May 27, Board Chairwoman Christine O'Connor called the proposed audit "an attempt to undermine the independence of the board and politicize education as never before in Howard County."
At Tuesday's meeting, Vaillancourt said that the board and the county are "not making each other understood" with regard to the system's finances.
"If you're a teacher and you have a student who isn't understanding something, you have to change the way you're saying it until they understand it," she said. "We can't just keep repeating the same thing, saying 'I told you this already.'"
The council will hear public testimony on Ball's legislative proposal June 20.Written testimony can be submitted to email@example.com.