Referring to the fictional TV psychiatrist Dr. Frasier Crane, Harford Schools Superintendent Robert Tomback said, “I’m listening…,” as he kicked off a set of public input sessions soliciting operating budget priorities for next year. The superintendent’s invitation drew calls for “technological parity,” safety upgrades, increased funding for teacher salaries and instructional materials, and revisions to a planned upgrade for the special education school.
The first of two public input sessions was held on November 29th at Patterson Mill Middle/High School in Bel Air, drawing a crowd of about 50 adults, many with children in tow. Drawing about 25 people, the second budget hearing was held on December 6th at the Center for Educational Opportunity in Aberdeen.
Homestead/Wakefield Calls for “Technological Parity”
Clad in red, parents from Homestead/Wakefield Elementary in Bel Air dominated the public turnout at both sessions calling for parity among schools in the distribution of computers and other forms of technology.
PTA President Mary Harris described the gap between Homestead/Wakefield and newer elementary schools as a “staggering discrepancy” that created “second class citizens of students.” Harris pointed to a HCPS budget guide showing the average number of students per computer countywide is 2.9 to one for elementary and middle school. The average at Homestead Wakefield is 6.3 to one, Harris said, making it difficult for students get computer time.
Harris said that the school’s PTA raised approximately $50,000, including pennies and nickels brought in by one student, for technology such as whiteboards and printers. Still, she said that fundraising couldn’t keep up with what other schools have and what is needed for students who will join a technology-driven workforce.
Harris asked for an immediate increase in computers at Homestead/Wakefield, with money to come from this year’s technology budget and fund balance. Along with other speakers from the school, Harris said that the technology gap should be considered before millions are spent to build new schools. Harris provided the following quote from her prepared remarks:
“Approximately $115 million is now going to be requested to build a new elementary school and a new high school. We ask that you consider, that before a brick be laid for these newer buildings (that will have even greater advanced technology and that will push our children even further behind), that sincere efforts be made by the Harford County Public School system to achieve technological parity and bridge the widening gap that puts an unfair load on the backs of our students and teachers.”
Harris also requested a report from HCPS on the number of computers at each of the county’s 33 elementary schools.
At the public input session on December 6th, Harris was back after having toured Harford County’s two newest elementary schools – Red Pump in Bel Air and Deerfield in Edgewood. Harris said that the disparity in technology between old and new schools was “obscene.” Citing plans announced by County Executive David Craig to get rid of old, multi-building schools such as HWES, Harris said that the school, which had been at the top of the priority list for an upgrade was now fifth in line at best, creating what she called a “double jeopardy” of old facilities and lack of technology.
While many students have computer access at home, HWES parent Theresa Bickler added that many others do not. “The public schools are supposed to be the one great equalizer,” she said, adding that technology should be distributed countywide to bring the most benefit to the greatest number of students.
Requests from Teachers
Funding for media and library materials was cut from $22 per student to $8, said Sarah Scholl, media specialist at Havre de Grace Middle School. She asked for funding to be restored next year for needs such as digital and audio equipment, as well as non-fiction books, which she said are emphasized in the new Common Core standards. Scholl also returned to the second input session on December 6th, saying that additional titles are needed to bring media centers up to date and some books on hand need to be replaced. “I can only tape and re-tape a book so many times before it won’t stay together,” she said.
Amarilyz Pimentel, a vice-president with the teachers’ union, Hall’s Crossroads Elementary School teacher and HCPS parent, called for an overall budget increase. Pimentel said that cuts in resources and teacher positions were reducing opportunities for kids. Her salary as a teacher, she said, was essentially being “redirected” to supply needed materials. Teachers’ workloads were also increasing “exponentially”, she said, listing a number of programs that require teachers to input student performance data, which she said took time to complete outside of the duty day. Pimentel asked Tomback to request a funding increase and concluded, “Our children deserve the best schools in Maryland, not just the best bargain.”
Requests from PTAs
Kim Holcomb, president of the John Archer School PTA, asked for a re-evaluation of plans to move the school, which is currently located near Harford Technical High School, to the campus of Bel Air Middle. John Archer is the only HCPS school that exclusively serves students with special needs.
The school system had planned to attach a new building for John Archer to Bel Air Middle, allowing for interaction between the student populations. While a modern facility is needed, Holcomb said, a scope study started in 2006 should be updated and alternate locations for the school should be considered. Hospital access should remain a consideration in revised plans, Holcomb said.
Joppatowne High School suffers from power outages and needs a backup generator, said Brenda Flenner, president of the school’s PTSA. Flenner also requested a fire alarm system that identifies the location of the pulled alarm. With the current system, Flenner said, staff stay behind when the building is evacuated to identify the location, wasting valuable time in an emergency. Joppatowne High needs a planned modernization, Flenner said, but she asked that the safety issues be addressed “sooner rather than later.”
Speaking on behalf of the Youth’s Benefit Elementary School PTA executive board, Beth Poggioli presented six elements identified by the group to encourage equity and parity within HCPS. The list included competitive professional salaries; staffing to maintain HCPS standards for class size; funding for proper school maintenance, particularly for older, multi-building schools, and technology upgrades to meet state targets. For the impending Common Core curriculum, the list included adequate training for staff and funding for materials of instruction.
Anyone who missed the public sessions can send input via email to firstname.lastname@example.org, but don’t delay. On December 17th, Superintendent Tomback plans to unveil his recommended operating budget for the fiscal year 2014.
School board members, many of whom were in attendance at the superintendent’s two public input sessions, will have public input sessions of their own in January. Once it is approved by the school board, the operating budget will be submitted as a funding request to County Executive Craig in early February. For more information about the budget process for Harford County Public Schools, click on “A Community Guide to the Operating Budget” found here: http://www.hcps.org/budget/