Can Harford County afford to increase funding for education? The answer from the teachers’ union was a big ‘yes’, in a presentation made by Robert Pellicoro, an independent financial analyst working for the union. Pellicoro presented his findings at two separate meetings held on Monday in Bel Air.
Pellicoro said that his credentials included the analysis of public school spending by local jurisdictions for unions in Maryland and Virginia, and that his work for the Harford County Education Association, the union representing county teachers, was based on data reported by Harford County government.
Pellicoro cited several sources of potential funding for increases to teacher salaries. He said that county revenues exceeded budget estimates for the past five years by an average of $15.5 million per year, which could have been used to fund increases for education, but was instead put into reserves known as the county “fund balance”. He also criticized the county’s increased use of “paygo” or pay-as-you-go funding for capital projects, saying that other counties had prioritized people over capital projects and cut paygo funding to fund their operating budgets, which include teacher salaries. Stopping short of calling for tax increases, Pellicoro decried two previous cuts to the property tax rate in Harford County, which he said cost the county a total of $ 10 million each year.
The presentation on behalf of the teachers’ union also included a chart comparing changes in expenditures over the past two years, showing that education spending in the Harford County general fund rose by 2% while spending in other areas grew by 14%. The bulk of the non-school increases came from a jump in paygo spending, increases in debt service, and in a category called “Social Services and Health”. The chart compared actual spending from fiscal year 2011 with spending in the proposed budget for fiscal year 2013.
The written portion of the presentation concluded: “It’s not a lack of funding. It’s a combination of priorities and the unwillingness to take the necessary action to weather the economic storm. Contact the County Council to demand funding priorities be returned to education.”
Approximately 40 teachers assembled at Bel Air High School Monday to hear the presentation, which was later repeated at a meeting of the Harford County Board of Education.
Also in attendance at the Bel Air High School gathering were two members of the Harford County Council. Council Vice-President and longtime educator Dick Slutzky said that teachers were not alone, and that no other county employees had gotten raises in recent years. Regarding next year’s fiscal 2013 budget, he said that, by law, the council would have to take funds from another county department or agency in order to fund increases in education above the levels proposed by County Executive David Craig. Slutzky asked union members to consider, “who do you want to lose their job?” to pay for teacher salary increases, adding that unlike other counties, Harford County had avoided teacher cuts and furloughs. Councilman Dion Guthrie told the teachers that their pressure should be directed at the county executive.
Regarding county finances, Slutzky said that recent increases in income tax revenue had come from the arrival of 8,200 BRAC jobs, which he said would not continue. He also said that the increased income tax revenue was offset by a sharp drop in property tax revenues, and that the cost of teacher pensions would add a new annual expense for the county. The cost of the teacher pensions are being gradually shifted from the state to local governments, which Slutzky said would cost Harford County $5.5 million in fiscal 2013,rising in three years to an estimated $10 – 15 million. Defending the county fund balance, Slutzky said that the county was required to keep a certain amount in reserve. He also cited several school capital projects paid for by the county in recent years that had added to the county’s debt service. He said that new capital projects were now on hold.
Monday evening, school board members received the union’s presentation on county finances but questioned the choice of venue. School Board President Leonard Wheeler, noting that the school board had no taxing authority, asked Pellicoro, “What utility does your presentation have to this board?” Pellicoro suggested it was to assist school board members in requesting funds based on need, rather than what might be “dictated” by county officials.
Citing the example of Baltimore City, Board Vice President Rick Grambo questioned the link between high taxes and improvements in school performance. Regarding funding for capital projects, Grambo said that cutting paygo funding would mean that the county would have to borrow more money, adding to the debt. “If you want to be taken seriously, you might want to rethink paygo,” Grambo said. Pellicoro said that the use of paygo funding was a better choice when interest rates were higher than they are now.
Randy Cerveny, president the Harford County Education Association, said in response to a question after the meeting that the union was not advocating for tax increases. He said that the purpose of the presentation was to make the community aware that funds are available but that a shift in priorities was needed.
Below is the full text of the presentation: