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Howard County school board's $972M budget plan trims from Martirano's request

Howard County’s Board of Education on Tuesday approved an operating budget request that nears $1 billion, but nevertheless trims $25.7 million off the proposal made last month by Superintendent Michael Martirano.

The board voted to advance a $972.7 million spending plan to County Executive Calvin Ball and the County Council — though the vote was not unanimous. School board members Vicky Cutroneo and Christina Delmont-Smalls voted against the plan, expressing concern about the overall cost.

The plan seeks $689.3 million from the county, $265.7 million from the state, $385,000 from federal funding and $17.3 million from “other sources.”

Overall, the request is roughly $25.7 million less than Martirano’s $998.4 million initial proposal.

After the board’s vote, Martirano said “people are caught up in the fact of the numbers, which we have to be. But at the same time, the board and the superintendent have a responsibility to define our need. And this...is our only opportunity to do that in an official capacity.”

The budget includes $37 million to fully pay down a deficit on the school system’s health benefits fund. It also includes a request for $710,000 for a redistricting consultant and $400,000 to upgrade transportation software and begin the process of considering later school start times.

The budget will also include funding for new positions meant to “better support minority and international students and their families,” said Board Chair Mavis Ellis in a statement delivered before the vote. The positions include ones to enhance the school’s outreach and to improve interpretation and translation support.

Officials said the approved budget request will position the school system to increase employee benefit costs and costs associated with enrollment growth.

Trims from Martirano’s initial request include reduction of some new positions he had sought in special education, as well as some new social worker and nurse positions. Nearly $10 million was reduced from his requests in the categories of equipment and building repairs, according to a summary from the school system.

The school system’s request to the county is a nearly 16 percent increase to what was funded by county government last year.

Martirano will send Ball the operating budget proposal by March 8.

In a statement, Ball said he was pleased the board “passed a budget that at least moves in the right direction in comparison to the Superintendent’s… proposed request that was more than twice the amount budgeted above maintenance of effort over the last decade combined.”

“However, the budget the Board of Education passed today will still be a big challenge for the Howard County government to fund without significantly raising taxes or cutting other critical services,” Ball said. He noted that last year, a spending affordability advisory panel urged the school system to “understand the limited resources available.”

“Wants are important, but needs are critical,” Ball said. “The superintendent and elected county officials have agreed in the past on the importance of evaluating and prioritizing the needs identified in the school system’s budget, similar to other county agencies, within the funding realities the county faces.”

The two board members casting votes against the plan expressed concerns about funding realities. Before voting against the portion of the budget sent to the county, Delmont-Smalls said because of her “great belief in being careful with what we ask for, and to be realistic, I have to vote no.”

Howard is projected to have its revenue negatively impacted by the most recent federal tax overhaul within a few years, according to the county’s fiscal 2019 budget.

Cutroneo voted in favor of the requests from federal, state and “other” sources, but voted against the full request to the county.

“Though I can appreciate the benefits of asking for what we needed,” said Cutroneo in an email, “I ultimately felt that the ask was too ambitious for one year, especially given the forecasted county revenue.”

The task to approve the final budget rests with the County Council, though it has limited ability to make changes. If the budget is decreased by Ball, the council can only increase schools funding up to what was originally requested.

Ball is expected to present his overall budget, including education spending, by April 22. The council will adopt the final budget on May 29.

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