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Op-ed

Baltimore County executive: School board budget supplement ‘unsustainable’ and ‘irresponsible’ | GUEST COMMENTARY

Baltimore County Public School Board of Education headquarters in Towson, Maryland.

When I ran for Baltimore County executive, I promised to make education my top priority — and I have. As a graduate of Baltimore County Public Schools, a former student member of the Board of Education, a former BCPS teacher, and now the parent of a BCPS student, I’ve seen firsthand the importance of investing in our schools, students and educators.

Delivering on the promise for public schools has meant record funding every year for school operations and investing significantly in our school infrastructure. We’ve increased teacher pay, including a step increase and 3% mid-year cost of living adjustment this fiscal year, and significantly increased pay for bus drivers, lunch room assistants and other positions.

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As a result of our efforts, our educators have gone from receiving average salaries to being among the top paid in the state. In addition, we have supported efforts to hire more teachers, psychologists, social workers and other support staff, increasing the number of funded positions by nearly 300 over the last four years — even as enrollment has dropped by about 4,000 students.

On Tuesday, the Board of Education approved a supplemental appropriation plan that proposes to use a one-time funding source to grow the annual BCPS budget, over and above the historic increases already provided, by nearly $50 million next year and upward of $159 million by 2027. I am proud that we have increased education spending more than any prior administration, but I am also mindful of the obligation to spend our residents’ limited tax dollars in a responsible and sustainable way. That is why I am disappointed that, despite meeting with board leadership this week to discuss the fiscally unsustainable nature of the supplemental appropriation request, they still voted in a manner that is irresponsible both to our constituents and our hardworking educators.

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Under BCPS’ plan, county residents would be responsible to fund an additional $505 million of new spending over the next five years. To put that number in perspective, the county has a Spending Affordability Committee that limits how much the county can spend in our operating budget each year, and this year our approved budget is just $2 million under that spending affordability guideline. The board’s request is unprecedented, using a one-time and limited source of funding to pay for ongoing costs.

The school system has said the supplemental appropriation is necessary to meet new salary obligations negotiated with the unions that represent our educators and other employees. I couldn’t agree more that paying our educators and staff what they deserve should be a top priority, which is why I have forwarded approximately $14 million of the school system’s fund balance request to pay for a full-year cost of living adjustment that was originally budgeted for half a year.

I wholeheartedly support the new contracts, and I want to see the school system honor them. However, rather than committing the county to unsustainable budget increases, BCPS should instead take a serious look at its existing budget and explore options for re-allocation. The school system has received historic local, state and federal funds. This funding is designed, in part, to attract and retain a highly qualified, diverse workforce. School board leaders have said they are prioritizing their people — they can and should do that by finding efficiencies in their $2.3 billion budget in order to fund the balance of these salary increases.

To be very clear, Baltimore County cannot afford to sustain the increase the Board has proposed, which would require a significant source of new revenue in the coming years — for example, increasing the County’s property tax by 17 cents, costing most residents thousands of dollars. I can say with confidence that our residents have no appetite for such an increase and, as county executive, it is not an option I will entertain.

In the absence of new revenue, the county would be forced to make drastic cuts to other critical services, such as public safety, recreation and parks, and code enforcement. After four years leading this county and listening to my constituents, I can say with confidence that this is another option our residents will not accept.

Education has been and must always be our top priority. I will never stop looking for new ways to continue investing in our schools. Our students and families deserve a world class school system, and we all want to provide them with what they deserve. But as county executive, I will always operate within our budgetary reality. Rather than making unsustainable promises, we need our school system leaders to also operate within the bounds of what is possible.

John “Johnny O” Olszewski Jr. is the Baltimore County executive. Email: johnnyo@baltimorecountymd.gov; Twitter: @BaltCoExec.


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