The following public comments were made at the October 14th Board of Education meeting by Harford County Public Schools parent Sandra Monaco-Burton:
Good evening. My name is Sandra Monaco-Burton, and I have served as a PTA volunteer and an HCPS committee volunteer in various capacities for the last seven years.
I wanted to address the budget process and my hope that you actually do make the parents and overall community a greater part of the endeavor. A few meetings ago this board lamented the lack of parent involvement in the last budget’s development despite the fact that several input sessions were held. I have heard comments that suggest that the parents just aren’t engaged and that the board had to make the tough decisions alone.
It occurs to me that your perspective and the parent perspective are very different.
The announcement for last year’s Budget Hearings read: “Community members and employees are invited to attend to provide input and share what they feel is important for consideration as the Superintendent begins to prepare his operating budget…”
There was nothing particularly dire in that notice. A handful of people did come out to those hearings, and in most cases gave suggestions on where you should increase spending.
Then the January budget work sessions occurred with no revelations that buses, or classes, or activities would be cut or class sizes would be increased. You ended up producing a bigger budget, and, by Spring, parents were asked to speak in favor of the county fully funding the additional $20- odd million that the school system now required. The Board was saying the financial climate was bad and that tough decisions would need to be made, but I would assert that few parents understood how you arrived at this very different circumstance in a few short months, let alone how or where to help you.
In sharp contrast, this year the budget hearing announcements do express a more urgent need for community input. In addition, with some of your recent decisions when you chose NOT to ENGAGE the parents in such topics as busing, magnet school transportation and pay-to-play, you managed to ENRAGE them, and you do now indeed have the public’s attention. You must keep it by giving people the tools with which to help you.
From my perspective, telling the community every January that we can go to the school system’s website and download the draft budget and make comments about it is an absurd way to ask for input. The budget runs 475 pages. Who can analyze online a financial document that size? If I really want to figure out where the money is spent, I need to print a ream of paper so that I can flip back and forth between the thousands of line items, marking items and making notes where something seems questionable or needs clarification.
After I review the 475 pages, I will have questions, maybe even some suggestions. However, I will have no access to HCPS budget and finance personnel. There will be no one to explain a line item and no one to explain a mandate or the story behind a certain expense. And, while I can come to the Board’s work sessions and talk at you for a few minutes, there will be no dialog. Other community members will come to talk at you, but none of us will get answers to our questions. I doubt few, if any, real cost savings ideas, or creative solutions will come to light.
Another January will come and go, the budget will get created by HCPS, and the public will again be informed that the only way we can help is by asking the county for more money.
This process needs to change. There has been talk of creating a Citizen Budget Advisory Committee. I hope you are out now asking for community volunteers to work with you on the budget. We need to be a real part of the development process so that we can be advocates that go back to the parents, teachers, and students.
This entire community can be part of the tough decisions. I can assure you that had you let parents know you needed to find $1.5 million to save transportation, people would have volunteered to help you figure out a better solution for the students than the one we are living with now.
Please make us a partner in the budget process. Give us the tools to make a smarter budget along with you. Harford County has a highly committed and talented volunteer population—it is time for you to engage us in a way that improves the educational experience for the children.