A Harford County Council budget work session scheduled late on a Friday afternoon might sound like a real yawner. But a surprising amount of news came out of Harford County Public Schools’ presentation to the members of the County Council on April 23; and not all the news was about the budget.
HCPS has been buzzing lately about a pending management shake-up. Word is that Superintendent Robert Tomback, who hails from Baltimore County Public Schools and has been on the Harford job for less than a year, will bring in some of his own people and reorganize the central office. At the budget work session, Tomback volunteered that management changes were on the way, with a plan to be presented at the school board meeting (tonight) April 26. Tomback said that the reorganization involves both the office of curriculum and instruction, currently headed by Roger Plunkett, and school operations, currently under the direction of Chief of Administration Joe Licata. Tomback said the changes will streamline the system, create positions, and result in savings of $120,000.
The school system will squeak by without layoffs or cuts to the instructional program next year, but only because the operating budget will be held together by the temporary glue of one-time money. The FY11 operating budget uses the last of federal bailout money, wipes out the schools’ fund balance, and applies one-time cost savings, which together plugged what would have otherwise been a $12. 8 million budget hole, according to earlier comments from budget officials.
Without an uptick in revenues in FY12 and beyond, Harford Schools’ CFO John Markowski told council members that the instructional program will be impacted. Markowski said that could mean cuts to staff and to the arts and athletics after next year.
Asked about state funding, HCPS budget officials noted that something doesn’t add up with the levels that have been set for Prince George’s County Public Schools; PG’s allotment from the state seems low. Why should we care? If there’s an error, Harford may lose some of the state funding we’re banking on.
In other bad news, Councilman Dick Slutzky reported on a recent conversation with Maryland Comptroller Peter Franchot. Slutzky said that Franchot voiced some support for pushing the cost of teacher pensions onto the counties.
So Franchot joins the crowd in Annapolis who are plotting to save the state from drowning in red ink by tossing an anchor to the counties.
Slutkzy said Franchot reasoned that local officials hire staff and negotiate salaries which then affect pension costs. Markowski from HCPS retorted that it was the state legislature that recently voted to increase teachers’ pension benefits. Touché.
Still, the tone of the work session was remarkably jovial, given the long term economic outlook. Maybe it’s because crisis was averted for now. Like the relief of having missed a bullet – never mind that the firing squad may be reloading.
Councilman Slutzky asked a series of detailed budget questions and sought clarification on a number of line items. He also requested an evaluation of the Alternative Education program at the old Aberdeen High School (now called the Center for Educational Opportunity – CEO). Slutzky questioned the efficiency of the program in its current location, given the relatively small number of students being served (less than 100 as of last September, although the number fluctuates during the school year)
Slutzky also noted the school system’s overall 87% graduation rate and asked for an evaluation of high school reform (a.k.a. CSSRP). Slutzky wanted to know if the graduation rate had improved as a result of CSSRP and “if not, why not?”
Slutzky also asked that future budget reports provide details on the duties of senior staff. The budget document lists a total of 84 administrators, supervisors and assistant supervisors. Slutzky said that HCPS may be unfairly charged with being top heavy, so it might be helpful for the public to know “What do they actually do?”
Superintendent Tomback was more communicative than in past meetings with elected officials, a welcome change. Tomback also didn’t shy away from offering a commentary on the federal law that dictates so much of public education. In response to a question from Councilman Dion Guthrie about No Child Left Behind, Tomback said the intent of NCLB was “laudable”, but that the implementation had “failed”. He stressed that he was speaking only for himself. Tomback went on to note that the standards under NCLB varied from state to state and he talked about the punitive nature of the accountability system. To be sure, educators have railed against NCLB since it was enacted in 2001. But it was somehow refreshing to hear Tomback take a personal and impassioned stand.
Last to speak was Council President Billy Boniface. Boniface was genial, but he directed an I-mean-business look at Board President Mark Wolkow and Superintendent Tomback, stressing the need for good communication between the council and the school board.
Communication between the two government bodies has been less than stellar in the past (see Red Pump/Campus Hills). But school board members Don Osman and Leonard Wheeler have begun regular meetings with Councilman Slutzky (Slutzky is a former educator and the council’s education liaison), with the other council members joining in on a rotating basis. As a result of the meetings, relations seem to be improving. It may be perfect timing, given the bumpy road ahead.