Faced with closing a $29.6 million gap in funding for next year, Harford Schools Superintendent Barbara Canavan on Wednesday recommended what she called a “miracle” operating budget for fiscal year 2015, avoiding layoffs and holding the line on class size, but reinstating pay-to-play fees for athletics and forgoing salary increases for staff, including herself. Canavan’s recommendation came at a school board meeting where teachers pleaded, often tearfully, for their scheduled salary increases, and the board considered, then rejected, a separate option to give staff a 1% raise funded through layoffs. After a lengthy and sometimes tense debate, the board delayed its vote on the budget until Monday, June 9, to allow for public input.
Prior to Canavan’s budget presentation, more than a dozen teachers pleaded with the school board to provide scheduled “step” increases, which have gone unfunded in four out of the past five years. Often overcome by raw emotion, they told stories of financial hardships and colleagues leaving the school system for higher pay. “Why should any of us stay?” asked Andrea Sarsfield-Fischer, a seven-year teacher, who added that she stays out of love for her students, some of whom have serious struggles of their own. Tearfully, she spoke of several who credited her with “helping them take the razors from their wrists, the pills from their lips, and the guns from their foreheads.”
Teacher John Watson said he didn’t blame the school board: “You basically have been dealt a very crappy hand by the politicians, but there are ways that things can be done to make it right.” He suggested paying for salary steps by eliminating sports, extra-curricular activities, buses to events, and supervision after school. “ I’ve never seen a stadium worth a classroom and teachers, and I’m a 40-year coach, “ he said, later adding, “Take away the one item that will make parents scream … they’re going to go back to the politicians and put their asses in the hot seat.”
Following the public speakers, Superintendent Barbara Canavan and senior staff laid out her budget balancing recommendations.
“I am distressed, distracted and disappointed that I cannot provide what our community has implored me to provide,” Canavan said, listing salary increases, class size reductions, and increased professional development, among the requests she received.
Canavan added that she was prepared to give up the salary increase attached to her own promotion from interim superintendent to superintendent. “If I need to ask people to make the sacrifice that we were regaled with tonight, and beautifully regaled with, in all good conscience, I can’t take one penny more.” The move drew applause from the audience.
She continued, “…I refuse to finger point. We are in dire economic straits, and the only way out of this is to work together.”
Commending staff and the community for their assistance, she called her budget recommendation “nothing short of a miracle”, finishing her introduction with a final warning, “You might not like parts of it, but nobody loses a job, nobody.”
At that, Jim Jewell, assistant superintendent of business services presented a series of slides, published in full below. Among the recommendations to balance the budget are: elimination of requested salary increases for staff; reinstatement of pay-to play-fees for sports only, with waivers only for students in the federal Free and Reduced Meals program; elimination of summer school for elementary and middle school students, and implementation of a $350 tuition charge for high school summer school, with no transportation provided; increased use of the fund balance to pay for operations; and rolling back a planned addition of 76.9 positions, 70 of which were for classroom positions cut in 2012-13.
In all, Jewell said the superintendent’s recommended $426.9 million operating budget is a reduction of $484,465 from the current fiscal year 2014.
The Amendment, and the Cost of a Decent Beer
Board Member Jim Thornton commended at length Cananvan’s leadership in handling the budget, but proposed the following amendment, the text of which was provided by HCPS upon request from The Dagger:
“Allocate $2.8 million for salary consideration in the FY15 budget. A stipulation of the amendment is that any reductions required to fund the compensation increases must come from non-instructional categories. Additionally, the amendment would delay adoption of the budget until the next board meeting in order to allow citizen input.”
Thornton asked that Canavan propose action to fund his $2.8 million proposal. “I realize that the implications may suggest that positions may be lost,” Thornton said.
Board President Nancy Reynolds asked Jewell how may position cuts would be needed to fund the $2.8 million, roughly the cost of a 1% cost of living increase, which Canavan stressed would include all employees.
Reynolds’ question prompted the introduction of two relevant slides, the first one showing the additional net income for teachers resulting from a 1% COLA, which ranged between $11 and $19 biweekly, depending on years of service and education levels attained:
And this second slide showing where the school board could make 46 position cuts to pay for a 1% COLA:
Jean Mantegna, director of human resources, said later that the position cuts would result in layoffs. “It certainly will end up resulting in some reductions in force,” with staff laid off from non-classroom positions “highly unlikely to be recalled.”
Board Member Tom Fitzpatrick weighed the extra biweekly income for staff against the prospect of layoffs, and later voted against Thornton’s amendment: “So, for the cost of a decent beer, we could lay off 46 people, and I just cannot bring myself to support that.”
Canavan was emphatic that she was not recommending the 46 cuts, coming as they would on top of 240 position cuts already made since 2010. “If this occurs, we will decimate the system,” she said, “it’s as simple as that, we will not be able to provide the services that we provide now.”
The 240 position cuts, as outlined earlier in the meeting by Jewell, included 35 cuts in central office and 205 school-based.
Board Member Cassandra Beverley lamented the difficult choices, supported the delay to allow for public input, and decried the compressed timeline for the vote, which could only occur after the county budget was approved on May 27th.
Board Member Bob Frisch argued in favor Thornton’s amendment, adding that teachers he spoke to were” willing to absorb a little bit more increase in [class size] simply because that was a way for them to survive.”
Board President Nancy Reynolds was against Thornton’s amendment: “I truly believe that as the superintendent stated… if we [cut 46 positions], we will decimate the system, we will have nothing left to support these teachers.”
Board Vice President Rick Grambo said there had been a lot of public input throughout the budget process and he supported Canavan’s leadership, which he said had brought energy and purpose to the school system.
In the end, Thornton’s amendment failed, but it was followed by a motion from Board Member Art Kaff to delay the budget vote until Monday. Kaff’s motion was later approved.
Canavan’s recommended budget appears below: