Harford County's office on drug control policy has had trouble making headway in the county's public school system, county administration director Mary Chance told a group of residents concerned about drug education Wednesday.
"[Drug control policy manager] Joe Ryan is more than willing to work with county schools," she said. "We are having a difficult time, I have to be honest with you, of getting our programs into the Harford County Public Schools. We would love to do more programs there."
The hearing on the county's 2013 budget drew about 50 people to Havre de Grace High School, including 17 who signed up to speak. Besides Chance, budget panel members included Harford County Executive David Craig, Treasurer Kathryn Hewitt and Budget and Management Chief Kim Spence.
One of the main topics at the hearing was drug education in the county schools, which several parents and relatives said they were promoting in light of a spate of recent heroin deaths.
"Fallston [High School] is referred to as Heroin High because that's where you can get heroin easy," Sabrina Breeden, of Bel Air, said, asking that the DARE (Drug Abuse Resistance Education) Program be put back in the school system.
"I just found out that the program was taken out of the schools and it just blows my mind," she said. "These kids need to be educated… To not let them know that is just ridiculous."
Breeden said her son has been struggling with drugs.
"If you would have told me five years ago that he would be a heroin addict, I would tell you are crazy," she said.
One of Breeden's sons, 12-year-old Bradley, read a poem about the dangers of drug addiction, and told the panel he did not learn about those dangers from school.
"I learned from life, and I learned the hard way by watching my brother go through them," he said. "Kids just are not being educated. If kids don't get educated about drugs, then there's going to be a lot more kids dying in Harford County."
Both Chance and Craig made the rare move of replying during a public hearing. They told the parents and relatives they should speak with the school system and the office on drug control policy.
"Unfortunately, the school department doesn't work collaboratively with them," Craig said, adding that as a former school administrator, he worked with the DARE program.
"I thoroughly understand how important that program was and needs to be," he said.
Noting that many children start abusing drugs by taking prescription drugs at home, he said Harford has a well-acclaimed drug takeback program.
Chance also encouraged residents to speak at the school system's public hearings and work with their churches or other organizations.
"We understand how truly critical of a need this is. We don't want any more children to die, either," she said. "We understand how terrible the heroin problem is here in Harford County."
The drug control policy office ran into problems with the school system at least once before. In early 2010, the office's Youth Commission was not allowed to distribute a survey on Harford's youth to public school students during school hours.
Besides Breeden, other parents and friends at the hearing also testified on behalf of loved ones who have struggled with drugs.
Debra Daugherty, of Aberdeen, said people in Harford should unite to help those in need.
"It's about time we change our laws enough to scare our children enough to stay alive," she said. "We cannot stand by. We must address this problem before it consumes our community."
Yvonne Harris, of Bel Air, became emotional as she spoke of her daughter, Alyssa Whelan, who died of a heroin overdose.
"My daughter died a couple days after Christmas. She was 19 years old," Harris said, holding a photograph of Ms. Whelan. "She looks like any other child in Harford County… The children here need us. They need us to be proactive. We cannot ignore this problem any longer."
Doe Lodd, of Churchville, said she was president of Addiction Connections Resource and thanked Craig for the funding for drug treatment he has allocated over the years.
"We are losing more and more of our young people," she said. "The parents' support group is growing, and thank God we have that."
Churchville sports, school support
Also at the hearing, other residents pushed for a Churchville sports complex and support of the public school system and libraries.
Craig told the audience comments can also be posted to http://ideas.harfordcountymd.gov.
The budget must be presented to the Harford County Council by March 30.
Several parents representing the All County Parks and Recreation group pushed for $3 million required to complete a sports complex in Churchville, which was also a hot topic during the budget hearings last year.
The project appears to be moving forward without the addition of a new library branch that was originally proposed.
Elizabeth Murphy; of Bel Air, Shaunyetta Mitchell, of Havre de Grace; David Lynch, of Bel Air; and Don Eller, of Forest Hill; were four of the residents testifying in support of the complex.
"This program is out of space," Murphy said on behalf of the gymnastics program, adding the program hosts two or three regional competitions.
"The bottom line is we need a good program, a solid program in Harford County," Lynch said. "We are all ears to see what we can do to regain the space we had once before."
Eller said the building is "desperately" needed in the community.
Several members of the school system also urged the county to support school funding and consider giving teachers raises.
One of them was Randy Cerveny, president of the Harford County Education Association union, which came under fire at the end of last year for contributing to Harford teachers being denied the $1,250 bonus being offered by Craig.
Without more support of the school system, "our county could face a weakened economy, lowered home values and dropping graduation rates," he said.
Brian Rheinhardt, of Bel Air, a county educator, said teachers are constantly caught in a tug of war between unions and the administration.
"Employees need to stop being used as a bargaining chip," he said.
He urged the county to cut wasteful spending and give modest increases to employees, which got him a round of applause from the audience.
Ryan Burbey, of Aberdeen, cited the countywide bonuses Craig unveiled last year as a sign of a problem.
"There is no excuse for this continued excuse of austerity," he said, asking if the county really has a "bleak outlook.".
"This is getting to the crisis point. It's not sustainable," he said about the county declining to fund schools beyond the minimum maintenance of effort requirement. "The schools will not be able to function as they are."
Beth Poggioli spoke on behalf of the PTA of Youth's Benefit Elementary School, asking for a new building to be prioritized and noting the project is shovel-ready.
Poggioli pointed out lack of potable water caused by high lead levels in the fixtures and the cramped classrooms as two of many challenges at the school.
With the state putting significant funding toward school construction, she said, "now it is time for us to turn our attention to those facilities that are deteriorated and failing."