From Tom Fitzpatrick, Harford County Board of Education member and candidate in District F:
Why I voted for Harford’s Schools
A few weeks ago, I had the honor of attending the Harford County Public School’s Service Recognition Dinner. This is an annual banquet, where the system honors and acknowledges the dedication of the teachers and staff who educate our children and help build Harford County’s future. I was seated with folks from Havre de Grace Elementary School, where people with 10, 20, 30 and even 40 years of service were being honored, including one former Teacher of the Year.
I had to wonder; why are these people smiling???????
For weeks and months, we on the Board, and over in the County Council had been constantly harangued by the President and some members of the Harford County Education Association. Teachers are leaving in droves (our retention rate remains over 90%), morale is poor, people have no faith, we are told, over and over.
Yet, the faces that I saw at that dinner told a very different story. They told stories of passion, dedication and service. They believe in their profession, and they believe in the institution that is Harford County Public Schools. And they unanimously and enthusiastically thanked me and the Board for supporting a budget that contained no layoffs, and kept class sizes stable, even if it was at the expense of a cost of living increase.
But none the less; yes, they are suffering.
When I was appointed to the Harford County Board of Education two years ago, I found that I filling a board seat in an institution that was seriously troubled. The County government, by neglect or by design, had been systematically starving the system of funding for several years. As a result, the share of County tax revenue that Harford Countians invested in their children’s education had dropped from a high of about 53 cents on every dollar a decade ago, to about 45 cents today. The system had not been able to honor its financial commitments to its teachers for several years. We would eventually lay off over 200 people, and we cut programs and increased class sizes. The autocratic management style of the outgoing administration had depressed morale and contributed to an atmosphere of moribund paralysis.
That changed when this board appointed a new Superintendent. Overnight, Barbara Canavan began an outreach program that has reached every corner of our system from top to bottom. This year’s budget is a product of that process. It was launched from the bottom up, and nearly every single HCPS employee had some input in it. Oddly, one Board member and at least one candidate in this election have called for “zero based” budgeting, apparently without realizing that that is precisely how our current budget was constructed.
We faced an array of tough choices. How do we keep class sizes from growing? How do we avoid cutting more programs? Can we finance our commitments to our employees? Can we avoid fees? Will we have to lay even more people off? How do we cope with the large number of state and federal mandates that are imposed on us, and which we have to fund?
When the County informed us that, once again, they were not going to fund our budget, we had to confront all of these tough questions anew. So, when I met with the Superintendent and senior staff to go over what they were proposing, I expected to be handed a Chinese menu of layoffs, program cuts, fees and the like.
Instead, Mrs. Canavan’s “miracle budget” contained no layoffs, worked to keep class sizes from growing, and preserved the professional development efforts that many people in the system have told me they value greatly (especially as we move into the era of the Common Core).
I was not happy that we could not honor our cost of living or step commitments for our teachers one more year. None the less, I recalled the angst and unhappiness when the Board laid people off in order to finance a onetime payment to our teachers two years ago. I felt that this was not the way to go. Indeed, my feeling was vindicated when the leaders of the unions that represent our support staff all came to our meetings to argue AGAINST more layoffs.
I chose to speak out forcefully for the Budget that our Board adopted. We serve all of the people of Harford County. As we looked down the list of tough choices, and confronted the options, the way forward was very clear.
After our first meeting on the Budget, a funny thing happened.
Out on the campaign trail, people started thanking me for taking the position I took. As I walked my district and people opened their doors to me, I had the chance to talk to teachers, secretaries, custodians, and staff members from our System. Many of them thanked me profusely for the supporting our Superintendent, even if it meant no additional money in the paycheck this year. People came up to me at campaign events, social events and even in restaurants and said the same thing.
The most recent incident was on the deck at Macgregor’ in Havre de Grace, where a teacher came up to me and thanked me in very emotional terms for taking a strong stance in support of keeping our system stable, and keeping her colleagues on the job.
These people are inspiring. They are dedicated. They believe in their calling and they are intensely loyal to the institution that is Harford County Public Schools. They have been asked to sacrifice a lot. And, despite what you may hear from some quarters, they have stepped up and given of themselves in these tough times.
It is to these people that I make this pledge.
I will fight to restore our teacher’s paychecks to the levels that are reflected in our contract. I know I am not alone in this commitment. As I write this, planning and strategizing on how to accomplish this goal has begun. I can’t guarantee the outcome. But I can guarantee my commitment.
Next year, we will have a new government in Bel Air, a new County Executive and a new Council. They will face very tough choices, and we at HCPS and the Board of Education will have to work closely with them.
One of those tough choices must be a commitment to honor the sacrifice and dedication of the people behind the smiles that I saw at the Services Recognition Dinner. The support that they expressed for me, the Board and Superintendent Canavan is uplifting and inspiring. They have stepped up and offered their services and loyalty for all these last lean years.
We owe it to them to honor their commitment.
These are the people we count on to help build the future. If we short change them in the long run, we short change ourselves.
Harford County Board of Education