Another in an occasional series of opinion and observations following a meeting of the Harford County Board of Education:
Unusual goings on at the June 24th Harford County School Board meeting included a curious comment, pointed questions, good news for some laid off teachers, and heartfelt remarks by the normally stoic Superintendent Robert M. Tomback.
The meeting took an odd turn early on when Board Member Tom Fitzpatrick was praising the Board’s student representative for the 2012-13 school year, Panashe Mutombo, who was not in attendance Monday night.
Referencing the bright future he believed to be in store for Mr. Mutombo, Fitzpatrick made a curious comment: “You never can tell where a gentleman of African American persuasion with a strange sounding name may end up.”
Fitzpatrick explained after the meeting that he is a supporter of President Barack Obama, who has called himself a “skinny kid with a funny name”.
Next up was a sharp exchange among Board members thrown into confusion over what turned out to be a housekeeping amendment to Board policy that was related to, but did not change, plans to implement Pay to Play.
As a reminder, Pay to Play and other extra-curricular activity fees were recently implemented by the Board in order to balance the fiscal year 2014 budget, and save teaching positions that would otherwise have been cut.
Board Member Bob Frisch, who supports the fees, said that questions had been raised about the Board’s authority to implement the fees. Frisch said that the Board’s attorney had advised that while the Board acted within the bounds of its existing policy on collecting funds from students, a policy amendment was nonetheless recommended to clear up any ambiguity.
Board Member Alysson Krchnavy, who opposes the fees, agreed that a policy change was in order, but offered a different interpretation of the attorney’s advice. The Board was “between a rock and a hard place”, she said, having approved Pay to Play in violation of existing policy and therefore the correction was necessary.
Board Member Jim Thornton said he respectfully disagreed, but showed some pique at the suggestion that the Board had acted irresponsibly. “That is not what the general counsel expressed to us earlier this afternoon… for Ms. Krchnavy to say that in some way we were irresponsible as a Board to just simply ignore the general counsel’s opinion is not accurate. That is not factual.”
Whether or not it was required by the advice of counsel, after some discussion about process, the Board agreed to consider Frisch’s amendment for action at a future meeting.
While the necessity of a policy amendment may be inside baseball, the Board’s next move was of interest to the public in more ways than one.
It may not be widely understood, but the county budget process allows the county executive and the county council to fund capital projects that did not originate in a request from the Board. When these funds are offered, the Board’s only options are to accept the cash or return it to the county.
Such was the case this year with three projects: $1.6 million for upgrades to the Aberdeen High School stadium and weight room; $250,000 for electrical upgrades to support technology at Homestead Wakefield Elementary School, and $250,000 for weight room repairs at Joppatowne High.
Frisch, who represents Edgewood/Joppa, singled out two of the three projects, saying he could think of better ways to spend $1.6 million than on the athletic upgrades for Aberdeen High, and questioning why Homestead Wakefield should get money for technology when the system wide technology needs were so great. Frisch went on at some length, calling attention to these two projects and asking pointed questions to staff about their involvement – as if staff did something wrong in cooperating with inquiries from a funding authority.
Letting the public know that the Board didn’t request this money and that he had other priorities was fair enough; but what about the county money going to Joppatowne High, in the district that elected Frisch? Frisch barely mentioned it.
Several of his fellow Board members tried to cool Frisch down, agreeing with his call for better communication, but pointing out that raising tensions over something the county has the right to do wasn’t likely to improve school funding overall.
Board Vice President Nancy Reynolds summed it up thusly: “This is one-time money that came in at the very last minute. It’s not necessarily my priority but it’s for the children of the county, and that is my concern.”
In the end, Frisch voted along with the majority to approve the fiscal year 2014 capital budget, which included accepting county money for the unsolicited projects.
As the meeting drew to a close, there was finally some good news to report: 32 of the 46 teachers who were laid off due to budget cuts had been recalled into open vacancies, and six more elementary teachers were likely to be called back by the end of the week, according to Jean Mantegna, head of human resources.
Of the eight remaining laid off teachers, she said that three were in elementary school, four were in business, and one was in the trades at Harford Technical HS. Depending on their certifications and the number of additional retirements or other vacancies that may occur, Mantegna said after the meeting that more of the eight could also be recalled.
Last but not least, Superintendent Tomback bade farewell to Harford County Public Schools as his term comes to an end on July 1. Humorously referencing advice from Franklin Roosevelt, he promised to “be sincere, be brief, and be seated.” Tomback then thanked for the Board for their farewells delivered earlier in the meeting, and gave a heartfelt good-bye to “wonderful boys and girls, terrifically dedicated and talented staff, and a community that cares.”
He ended by citing the new HCPS motto, which was created by a student at C. Milton Wright High School and was newly attached to the boardroom dais Monday night: “Inspire, Prepare, Achieve.”