Part II of The Dagger’s interview with David Craig focuses on a topic raised by the county executive himself, the controversy over county funding for Harford County Public Schools for the fiscal year 2014 – a year that began on July 1.
As a reminder, the school board had requested an increase of $22.6 million from the county, primarily to make up for cuts in state funding, to pay for cost increases in ongoing expenses, and to fund a salary increase it negotiated for school employees. Craig recommended an increase of only $1.5 million, although he did provide more money than what was required by the state to maintain per pupil spending from year to year, a.k.a. Maintenance of Effort.
When Craig’s recommended budget was approved by the county council, the school board then scaled back its budget by cutting 120 positions, laying off 46 teachers (at least 41 of whom have since been called back to fill other vacancies), instituting pay to play and extra-curricular activity fees for students, and cancelling the raises. That last move drew fire from the teachers’ union, which has also called for teachers to work to rule in the next school year.*
The following is a transcript of the discussion initiated by Craig, minimally edited to provide readers with Craig’s thoughts on the operating budget process, the school board, the teachers’ union, in his own words:
Craig: “For the [school board] to create their own budget and then come to me and say here’s our budget – it doesn’t work. That’s not the way the sheriff does it, it’s not the way the library does it, it’s not the way the community college does it. They prepare what they hope for, and they come to me and say: ‘How much can we have, how much will we have…?’ And I’m able to tell them… revenues just declined by this amount, so… you’re actually going to get less money.”
Dagger: So when the school board is preparing the budget they don’t consult with you at all about what the revenue streams look like?
Craig: “No. And I’ll say this about the [school] board…they don’t consult with each other. The board members don’t consult with each other about what’s going on. They like to play it in front of the TV camera, and get all this nice clapping out in the audience from people about what they’re doing. If these issues are important they should be playing them out all the time.”
Note: Craig acknowledged that he meets regularly with the superintendent of schools, and then he continued:
“The board shouldn’t even present their budget until after I’ve presented the budget, to tell you the truth. I mean, they should present me with what they want …But nobody should look at their budget and say [to me], ‘you didn’t approve their budget.’ It’s their budget request, not their budget.”
Dagger: In addition to having the school board sit down with county government in advance and get a sense of the revenue outlook, how else would you fix the budget process?
“It goes back to the even bigger issue that [the school board is] going to say: ‘But we have to negotiate with the union, and if you tell us that we only have a certain amount of money, [the union is] going to say they don’t care about that. This is how much you [the school board] should ask for, or this is what we want.’
I can tell you this, the union went back and actually asked the board to cut 250 more jobs to give them the pay increase. Yeah, they asked the board to cut as many jobs as needed to keep that money in there for the pay increase. Now, will they reveal that to the teachers that would have lost their jobs? Probably not. But that’s what they did.”
Dagger: You say that the school board should get a sense of the funding levels first, and work their budget request around that; what do you say to the argument that the board should advocate for what’s needed?
Craig: “They act like they’re the only ones that do that. The sheriff advocates for what’s needed; the library advocates for what’s needed, the health department advocates for what’s needed. Every department, every outside agency that comes to me advocates for what they believe is needed. But they have a better understanding that there are limitations and that they have to live within those limitations, and that there’s only so much money. Let’s say I did have $20 million dollars this year that I could have had in the budget. Should it all have gone to the school system? I had a sheriff advocating for public safety, the community college advocating for higher education, the library system advocating for programs… to help people who have lost jobs or are looking for jobs. All these outside agencies have the same problem but they approach it in a much better way.”
Dagger: Any other changes you would make to the budget process?
Craig: “This whole political idea that they were going to have maintenance of effort, you know what that’s done statewide? County governments are [saying they are] never going to go above maintenance of effort…
Maintenance of effort is ridiculous. I’d get rid of it because the county government should be allowed to say…I have an extra $10 million this year, I’m going to put it in [the schools’ budget]. But guess what? If [the money] goes away [next year] I might have to make [the schools’ budget] decline. And why should [maintenance of effort] be just for [schools]? Why shouldn’t it be for fire service or police service…? That’s why there should be no maintenance of effort for any [government] service in particular…”
*Ben Lloyd, Craig’s deputy chief of staff, later provided the following pages from the county budget that detail the county’s fund balance, which has been cited by the teachers’ union as an additional source of school funding. Lloyd offered the following explanation regarding the fund balance, which is the accumulated excess of revenues over expenses, measured at year end:
“Let me just reinforce what Mr. Craig said, which is that just because we show an unencumbered fund balance, doesn’t mean it would be prudent to spend it. For example, if there was $20 million in fund balance, and we spent it, we’d have a $20 million deficit the following year, since that expense would recur without an offsetting revenue source. There would also be built-in structural deficits for the following years of $40 million, then $60 million, and so on.”