Another in an occasional series of analysis and observations following a meeting of the Harford County Board of Education:
A recent Harford County Board of Education meeting featured vexing budget decisions affecting students, staff and the community at-large: Should class sizes be increased to give teachers a raise? Should unpopular pay-to-play fees be abolished, taking with them unanticipated benefits? And finally, should Board members ask for what staff says is needed to improve the school system, or what county government is likely to fund, or something in between? Board members at their January 27th meeting addressed such decisions as they adopted a budget request for next year.
In the end, the Board by majority vote adopted a $454.2 million operating budget request for the fiscal year 2015 that provides salary increases for all employees, reinstates teaching positions cut in prior years, and eliminates pay-to-play and extra-curricular activity fees. The budget request does not reverse cuts made this year to bus transportation services, despite an outcry from affected parents.
The request is a total a total increase of $29.4 million, or nearly 7% more than the current fiscal year. However, due to a decline in estimated revenue from other sources, an additional $32 million will be requested from Harford County government.
On the funding side, county officials have projected that overall revenues are likely to be flat next year. Therefore, as in years past, if the school system’s request for 2015 is not fully funded, the Board must make cuts to balance its budget before the July 1st start of the fiscal year.
A swift return of the student fees were among the options raised by Board members, even as they voted to remove the fees from their budget request.
The Fees and The “Unintended Benefit”
Last June, the Board approved student fees of $50 per sport and $25 per extra-curricular activity to close a budget gap in the current (2014) fiscal year.
For the fiscal year 2015, the budget recommended by Interim Superintendent Barbara Canavan retained the fees as a source of revenue.
At the January 27th meeting, Board Member Alysson Krchnavy proposed the repeal, thereby forgoing an estimated $309,500 in direct revenue. Indirectly, the loss may be significantly greater.
Jim Jewell, assistant superintendent of business services, explained that when the Board waived the fees for students who receive federal Free and Reduced Meals (FaRMs), the availability of the waiver likely contributed to an unprecedented spike in FaRMs enrollment. Jewell said that 675 more students enrolled for this school year, bringing the total to 10,970 students system wide.
Exactly how many of the new enrollees were motivated by the waiver is unknown, but Jewell said that the school system receives in excess of $3,000 in compensatory aide for each FaRMs-enrolled student.
Thus, 675 new FaRMs enrollees in this school year will yield more than $2 million in revenue for the school system.
Without the fee waiver as incentive, Jewell said, high school students in particular might not re-enroll for FaRMs benefits next year and thereafter, resulting in a loss of revenue for HCPS and a loss of meal benefits for students.
Referring to the meals rather than the revenue boost, Board Member Bob Frisch called the extra FaRMs enrollments an “unintended benefit” arising from the fee waiver: “A student who is hungry in the classroom is distracted when all you think about is your stomach growling…” But Frisch also argued in favor of the fees, which he said were minor considering the school system’s cost to run sports and other activities. Frisch also noted that participation hadn’t dropped significantly since the fees were enacted.
Benjamin Barsam, the Board’s student representative, favored repealing the fees as a matter of principle, but noted that they could be reinstated if necessary to balance the budget.
Board Member Tom Fitzpatrick said that he would be happy to abolish the fees, but only after the county funded the budget, which he called “bare bones”.
Krchnavy’s amendment repealing the fees later passed in a vote of 6 to 4, with Board members Tom Fitzpatrick, Rick Grambo, Cassandra Beverley and Bob Frisch voting ‘no’.
Board Member Joe Hau proposed another budget amendment to undo reductions in bus services implemented this year for students in the county magnet programs. The cuts created a bus depot system requiring high school students to get their own transportation to and from their home school.
In response, Charlie Taibi, transportation director, said that the magnet program cuts couldn’t be disentangled from the overall transportation service cuts that included the elimination of 8 buses and created efficiencies system wide. Reversing the overall cuts would cost approximately $1.2 million, he said. Other Board members held out hope that some cuts could be restored in the future, with the implementation of routing software recommended in a recent study. Hau discussed the hardship for affected families but later withdrew his motion.
Salary Increases vs. Teaching Positions
Distraught teachers also attended the Monday meeting, continuing their call for scheduled “step” increases that have not been funded in four out of the past five years.
Teachers’ union president Ryan Burbey also gave one in a series of recent presentations highlighting Maryland school systems that offer better teacher pay than HCPS. Upon questioning from Board members as to his purpose, Burbey said he wanted to publicize the differences, which he said were now affecting students. Speaking of teachers, he said, “Those that are here, frankly are getting very bitter.” Publicizing higher salaries elsewhere served another purpose, Burbey said, “I feel an obligation to the teachers of this county. They need to know what the opportunities are elsewhere.”
Later in the proceedings, Board Member Cassandra Beverley asked Jewell how many teaching positions would have to be cut in order to raise $1 million toward teacher salary increases. Jewell’s answer: About 16.
Doing the math on the entire $13.7 million requested in the budget to fund salary increases for all employees equates to approximately 220 teachers, or four positions at each of the county’s 54 schools. The figure would be over and above any cuts needed first to meet the rising cost of employee benefits and other costs of doing business.
Board Member Arthur Kaff proposed a series of budget amendments adding priorities identified by Interim Superintendent Canavan, but not included in her budget recommendation.
Board Member Jim Thornton said he shared a desire to move the system forward, but cautioned against adding to the increase already being requested from county government when county revenues are estimated to be flat. “I think we’re setting ourselves up for a lot of disappointment and a lot of gut-wrenching conversations back and forth…” Laying out limited options, Thornton said that because 84-85% of the budget is personnel costs, spending more without an increase in funding would mean cuts to teaching positions. Thornton also questioned whether cost savings were being identified within the system.
Board Vice-President Rick Grambo railed against unfunded mandates driving the budget, and limiting the Board’s choices to cutting teaching positions or giving no raises. He urged the Board to reject outside control.
Kaff’s amendment adding to the budget later failed in a vote of 7 to 3, with the only ‘yes’ votes coming from Kaff, Fitzpatrick, and Board President Nancy Reynolds.
“The People’s Budget”
Foreshadowing budget cuts for fiscal 2015, Beverley suggested that the Board hold additional forums to find out what the community wants: “Is it the funding for the teachers. Is it the reasonable class sizes?”
Interim Superintendent Canavan interjected that her recommended budget request, which she called “the people’s budget” was developed based on community input, including hundreds of emails, plus input from staff at all levels. Nonetheless, Canavan stood by her budget: “I will take full responsibility because I’m presenting it,” she said.
To restore staffing to 2012-13 levels, Canavan said, teaching positions were included as a cost of doing business in the budget: “Parents, teachers are crying out for smaller class sizes…I don’t know what we’re going to be able to deliver, but we have to make that effort.”
Defending the overall request, Canavan said, “With all due respect to those individuals who feel like I’m asking for too much, I would like to remind everybody that we have not been funded, in my opinion, properly for quite a long time…I’m not blaming anyone but that is the realistic answer. We have to tell people what we need…”
The Board later adopted the fiscal year 2015 operating budget request as amended in a vote of 7 to 3, with the ‘no’ votes coming from Hau, Grambo and Frisch.