Baltimore County school board not given enough information to make the best budget decisions
Feb 26, 2019 at 5:15 PM
The Baltimore County teachers union rallies about budget issues before the school board meeting. (Kenneth K. Lam, Baltimore Sun video)
As a member of the Baltimore County Board of Education, I can only speak for myself. I cannot speak for the full board or other members of the board. As expected, the superintendent’s office and the rest of the school system attempts in a budget process to have as much money allocated to their respective functions as possible. The board is charged with making sure that our budget is fiscally responsible, prioritizing student needs as directly as possible. All the while, advocating for what we believe the school system reasonably needs.
After the county executive presented to the board that an 11 percent over maintenance of effort budget would be impossible for the county to fund, the board chair asked the superintendent for recommendations about what efficiencies could be found in spending growth that would still allow us to fund additional staff needed in the schoolhouse. This was met with a surprise announcement in a board meeting that the only way to do this was to eliminate teacher step increases in pay. The media reporting gave the public the incorrect impression that the board asked for this. Our bargaining units began a full scale campaign involving rallies and over 1,000 e-mails to board members asking us to pass the 11 percent over the mandatory budget level. They stated this is the year to “ask for what we really need.”
There is an argument to be made for that. If government never sees a request for what is truly needed than they might not realize what is being underfunded. However, there is also a case to be made that sending 11 percent more than mandatory to the county executive to make cuts abdicates the authority of the board of education to set the priorities of the school system by making those decisions ourselves.The board received the budget book slightly over a month prior to the vote. Work sessions were available for questions, following presentations. Written questions were responded to weeks after submitted. A request for a line item budget for fiscal year 2018 actual spending, fiscal year 2019 projected spending fiscal year 2020 proposed spending was delivered weeks after requested in a pdf format excluding actual spending data .Delivering financial data for comparison as a pdf file is practically useless a week before a vote. A request for an Excel file of the data was denied to the board by the superintendent on the grounds that such a file could be edited. A further request was made for a “read only” Excel file which was also never delivered.
A request by the board chair and the audit committee chair to have the board’s office of internal audit obtain the required information was met with zero cooperation from the superintendent contrary to board policy. My objective was to ascertain if there were any areas in our spending practices that could be reallocated to meet staffing needs, realizing the county executive cannot fund 11 percent above the mandatory budget. I was unable to obtain the data necessary to make such an analysis. In the end, I needed a scalpel to make budget decisions and the school system provided me with nothing more precise than a sledgehammer in the way of information useful to the decision making process. Sledgehammers create a lot of collateral damage. I didn’t vote to cut very much because I couldn’t possibly know the unintended consequences of cutting to specific categories.
Every single category has things embedded in it that a reasonable person wouldn’t want to defund. Without a specific line item breakdown in a usable format, supported by enough time, and audit staff analysis, it’s impossible to be precise because of the way the budget categories are organized. This board is currently entirely dependent on the departments that want as much money as possible for the school system for the very information that would give us the tools to find efficiencies. This presents a functional conflict of interest and competition between the board and school system instead of collaboration. In the future, I will be working toward a better way of making budget decisions by involving the board’s office of internal audit in the process more.
I am committed to making sure that as much money as possible makes it into the schoolhouse and provides maximum benefit directly to students. It is my hope that other members of the board will see the value of reforming our budget process to be more transparent to both the board and the public.