BCPS $1.4 billion budget proposal commits resources to students [Commentary]

As we dive into the new year, work is well underway to bring to life the transformation in teaching and learning envisioned by Baltimore County Public Schools in our strategic plan, Blueprint 2.0, with a focus on academics, safety and security, communications and organizational effectiveness. To make necessary progress, we must deepen our investment in public education with the goal of preparing all of the county's graduates to be globally competitive.

Tuesday night, I presented to the board a $1.4 billion operating budget for Baltimore County Public Schools in 2014-2015, which represents an increase of $72.4 million, or 5.5 percent, over the current school year. We are thankful to our local and state partners for the funding that has been provided in the last several years during the toughest economic times in decades. Still, it is time to do more because spending has not kept pace with other Maryland counties or our own surge in student enrollment at a time when the future demands more from our students. As a result, this budget proposal reflects three priorities: managing growth, raising the bar and closing gaps, and investing in the future.

First, we must accommodate the growth and increasing diversity of our student body with our most strategic resource: additional staff. BCPS enrollment has grown 4.6 percent since 2008, with continued growth projected for the next decade. Nearly half of our students are eligible to receive free or reduced-price meals, and the number of homeless students has more than doubled. Regardless of background, every BCPS student needs the knowledge and skills for success in a changing world, and we have a moral imperative to prepare them for their future.

In response, the budget includes 89.5 new school-based positions, 15 additional staff to support homeless- and special-education transportation and four additional school counselors. Funding will include staff for the new elementary school in the Lutherville area opening in August 2014 and start-up costs for a future elementary school in the northwest area to open in August 2015.

New initiatives to raise the achievement bar include rigorous, relevant, accessible and responsive curriculum materials to support inquiry-based teaching and learning as all students prepare for college and/or careers. Expanded access to prekindergarten, intensive secondary math tutoring and engaging opportunities for struggling students to retake course work will provide proactive and adaptive supports to close achievement gaps.

Staff, infrastructure and security investments now will ensure that our students are benefiting from 21st century teaching and learning. Annual increases related to employee salaries and benefits reflect the largest share of the budget increase, adjustments that will help us retain and recognize quality staff. Our employees deserve to be compensated for the hard work they do each day on behalf of our over 108,000 students. BCPS students branded our multi-year effort to create 1:1 digital learning environments as S.T.A.T. (Students & Teachers Accessing Tomorrow), which we'll support through wireless classroom infrastructure. We will also continue enhancing school safety and security systems and equipment, to ensure our schools remain the safest place for our students, staffs and communities.

Announcing this budget proposal coincides with our first We Are Team BCPS Day, launching an ongoing campaign to encourage the range of community members who make up Team BCPS — parents, staff, students, residents, government and partner institutions — toward even greater engagement. The budget was informed by focus groups of employees and board members, as well as advisory committee public hearings. I look forward to bringing the proposal back to the community at our upcoming public hearing on Jan. 21, leading to a vote by the board in early February. Our public schools are the economic engine of Baltimore County. With this budget proposal, we recognize that this is our time to commit precious resources to support this county's greatest asset — our students.

Dallas Dance is superintendent of Baltimore County Public Schools. His email is ddance@bcps.org.

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