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Baltimore County executive: schools budget can be trimmed without affecting teacher pay

I am a teacher. I don’t work in a classroom anymore, but my days teaching at Patapsco High School have shaped me into the person I am today. They shape the kind of county executive I want to be. They are the reason I ran for this office in the first place.

I will never turn my back on the teachers of Baltimore County. I want to give them everything they need and deserve to educate our students effectively.

But I also have a responsibility to tell county residents the truth — even when that truth is uncomfortable.

Here is the uncomfortable truth: Our county’s fiscal health is in danger. We face an $81 million deficit for our upcoming budget with significantly larger gaps projected for future years. Most county residents — myself included — had no idea that this deficit existed, almost entirely because a long-standing fear of transparency has permeated county government for decades and hidden our true fiscal situation.

As county executive, it’s my job to do right by our students and teachers while honestly confronting the realities of our budget. Educators and advocates rightly say that our school system has been underfunded for decades, and I am committed to working with the school board and the system to find a long term solution. But that can’t be done in a single budget cycle.

The original schools budget proposed by Interim Superintendent Verletta White would more than double the county’s fiscal year 2020 deficit to $172 million, adding an additional $91 million in spending to our underlying shortfall.

In light of the significant gap between where we are and where we want to be, I went to the interim superintendent and the school board to explain our shared circumstances. I asked them to work with me to find savings in other parts of the school system’s budget so that we can make needed investments and avoid balancing the budget on the backs of our educators. Additional spending is needed to meet our school system’s needs, but so too is strong fiscal stewardship, priority setting and accountability.

When the interim superintendent was asked to present a modified version of her original proposal in response to our fiscal reality, her “version two” budget cut, among other items, well-deserved raises for teachers. She indicated that she would like the board to support her original proposal, which has since led many in the public to believe we can only do one budget or the other.

That’s a false choice. We do not have to choose between the original proposal and another one that slashes raises for teachers. This “one or the other” approach assumes there are zero opportunities for savings in the original $1.65 billion proposal.

There are such opportunities. One example: The proposed budget for BCPS administration is more than $56 million, reflecting a 53 percent increase from what we spent on administration just seven years ago. In just a few years, we’ve also spent nearly $300 million to provide devices to students in every school as part of the STAT initiative, including the accompanying infrastructure, software and support personnel costs. Considering our front-line needs, it’s time that we re-allocate some of these resources where they are needed most: the people delivering classroom instruction.

Since learning of our impending deficit, I’ve remained singularly focused on finding ways to address our fiscal health while also moving forward on our priorities. I have asked my department heads to look for places to cut — programs that are no longer effective, opportunities for eliminating redundancies or other ways that we might save money. There are no sacred cows; we have an obligation to be responsible stewards of taxpayer money, and we will examine every nickel we spend to do so.

Representing half of the total county budget, the school system should do the same.

I believe there are opportunities in the Baltimore County Public Schools budget to find savings that don’t affect teacher pay. I believe that the school system has a responsibility to find those savings and re-prioritize our spending.

The school board will vote on Tuesday on a budget proposal. I will then review the board’s proposal and put forward a complete budget we can afford to the county council in April. The council must approve a final budget by May 31.

This moment is an opportunity for our newly elected school board. They have already shown a willingness to cooperate and a desire to approach things differently. In that spirit, it is my hope that they pass a proposal that they know is affordable; a budget that takes a hard look at every dollar that BCPS spends and serves our students and teachers well while acknowledging the realities of the county’s fiscal situation; a budget that responsibly begins our long-term strategy to fully fund our schools.

Johnny Olszewski is Baltimore County executive; his email is JohnnyO@

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