At a hearing held Monday in Aberdeen, Harford County Executive David Craig asked for public input on the budget for next year and got an earful of pleas to increase education funding.
Nearly 400 teachers, parents and students packed the Aberdeen High School auditorium for Craig’s only public hearing on the county budget for the 2014 fiscal year. Dominating the requests were calls to fund increases in teacher salaries and instructional materials. Requests were also made for a new Youth’s Benefit Elementary School facility, more computers at Homestead Wakefield Elementary, and a replacement playground at Prospect Mill Elementary. A handful of speakers offered support for the Harford County Public Library, and the Arc Northern Chesapeake Region, which serves people with intellectual and developmental disabilities. Among a total of more than forty speakers, only one called for cuts to county spending.
Following over two hours of public comment, which included former county executive Eileen Rehrmann and former school board member Mark Wolkow, Craig blamed the state for cutting education aid to Harford County. “The state has devastated us,” Craig said, listing the increases in state aid received by other counties contrasted with either cuts or no increases for Harford County Public Schools. Among the 24 Maryland public school systems, Craig said that Harford ranked 13th in local funding per student, but “we’re in the bottom from what the state provides.”
Teachers Turn Out
Citing a lack of raises in three of the last four years, many teachers called for the salary increases set forth in their negotiated contract, which subjects such increases to the decisions of fiscal authorities and the school board. Many teachers said they worked one or more extra jobs to make ends meet.
“I’m tired of begging,” said North Harford Middle School teacher George M. Curry, adding that despite his masters’ degree, he also worked as a “human target”, picking up golf balls at a local golf course. He said that some teachers may leave, while others will continue in HCPS not for the paycheck, but for the students. “We’re going to do the best job we can,” Curry told Craig, “My question is, are you?”
Elizabeth Brown, a chemistry teacher at Edgewood High, said that with her master’s degree in organic chemistry, she could make double her teacher’s salary in private industry. She asked, “Why should I continue to teach in Harford County?”
Several teachers said they continue to pay out of pocket for supplies. Bel Air High School teacher Alison Warner said that she has had to choose between buying items for her classroom and her own children.
Other teachers noted cuts that were made to programs and positions this year, and the effect on students. Sarah Scholl, media specialist at Havre de Grace Middle School, said that funding for elementary and middle school media materials was cut this year from $22 per student to $8, at a time when updated materials were needed for science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM). Jason Mills said that the position cuts increased class size and eliminated the planetarium program in kindergarten and fourth grade. The Harford County Board of Education made cuts to this year’s budget in order to fund a 1% cost of living increase for all employees, plus contracted increases for eligible employees.
Ryan Burbey, who organized the teacher turnout as president of the Harford County Education Association, said that Harford County ranked 9th among Maryland public schools in achievement but languished for many years in the lower quartile for funding. Bringing the crowd to its feet, he said that the current levels of achievement, funding and technology were not good enough. “Let’s end this silliness,” Burbey said, warning that it would be difficult to attract a new superintendent “if each year we fight this very public fight just for survival.”
Former longtime school board member Mark Wolkow asked, “Can we continue to do more with less and less and less?” Efficiencies had been found in the schools budget, he said, and he called on Craig to fund the current school board’s budget request for next year.
The school board’s fiscal year 2014 operating request of $443 million includes increases over the current fiscal year of $6.3 million for wages, $6.6 million for employee benefits and $2.1 million for the cost of doing business. Due to declines in expected revenue from other sources, the funding request to county government is an increase of $21.2 million.
Computers, School Facilities, and “Tough Decisions”
Homestead/Wakefield PTA President Mary Harris decried what she called an “obscene disparity” in technology among county elementary schools. She outlined discrepancies in the number of students per computer, which range from a low of about two students per computer at some schools to a high of about eight. Harris asked, “Where is it that we have gone so far askew with our priorities that we are more concerned with school parity when it comes to funding state-of-the-art athletic fields than we are with technology?”
Former county executive Eileen Rehrmann urged Craig to fund a new facility for Youth’s Benefit Elementary. Noting that the state recently approved the project she first proposed 17 years ago, Rehrmann asked for both planning and construction money from the county next year. Youth’s Benefit PTA President Laura Runyeon outlined deficiencies with the current facilities, including failing septic, lead in the water, asbestos floor tiles, and an open classroom design that she said distracts students and poses a security risk.
Prospect Mill Elementary School needs a replacement playground, said PTA officer Danielle Spigler and her son Nick, a student at the school. Ms. Spigler said that the existing playground for first and second graders has four swings serving four classes at the same time. Citing gifted and talented education among other needs, she said, “Harford County needs to step up and put our children first.”
The only speaker to suggest budget cuts, Hugo Biermann said he is retired and on a fixed income. In addition to salary freezes, he suggested 10% cuts across the board and “eliminating frills.” His remarks were met with some applause.
Drawing his public hearing to a close, County Executive Craig thanked those in attendance and said that as a former educator, he understood teachers’ concerns. However, Craig offered no assurances about his budget, which he must recommend by April 15th to the County Council. “There are tough decisions that we have to make”, Craig said.