School board's spending plan $304.6 million

Harkins, board to discuss operating budget tomorrow

`We have taken a big step'

Money sought to reduce class size, hire teachers

Harford County

February 02, 2003|By Ted Shelsby | Ted Shelsby,SUN STAFF

The Harford County Board of Education has proposed a $304.6 million operating budget for the new school year that seeks to add more teachers, reduce class size and provide relief for overworked custodians.

School officials will meet with County Executive James M. Harkins tomorrow to discuss details of the 360-page document.

The budget calls for an increase in spending of 6.5 percent, or $18.6 million, but some education observers say it will do little to increase the county's spending per pupil. Only Caroline County spends less money per pupil than Harford.

John L. Cox, budget director of Harford County public schools, said $3.55 million has been designated for the hiring of 80 teachers.

Other expenditures include:

A $6.5 million increase in the cost of health care and dental plans for school staff.

An additional $1.3 million for special education.

An increase of $75,000 for student field trips.

An allocation of $9.7 million to implement a master plan, which includes meeting standards of the federal No Child Left Behind education plan, which requires additional testing and seeks to raise standards in schools nationwide.

"We are advocates for the children," said school board President Terry R. Troy, "and this budget focuses on the needs of students.

"We would be getting the teachers needed to reduce class size, and it's easier for teachers to reach students in smaller classes."

The average class size for middle and high schools is 26.2 students. The school system's goal is to reduce it to 25.

Troy said she wished the budget could do more to address the needs of special education students.

Cox said the $1.3 million increase pushed special education funding to $30.8 million, not including transportation.

"This is what has been budgeted," Troy said. "It is not enough to meet the needs."

Troy said she also would like to see more money to hire additional school nurses and guidance counselors.

"I think we have taken a big step, and we asked for a lot of things centered around student achievement," Superintendent Jacqueline C. Haas said. "The challenge now is to get the county to fund it."

Haas said she advocates a reorganization that would have the county adding 33 teachers and 22 instructional support specialists.

She said the 33 teachers would keep class sizes at the current level, while the support people, or staff development officials, would work with teachers to enhance their teaching skills. "It would result in more qualified teachers in the classroom," she said.

Cox said the increased health care and dental plan costs will raise next year's spending to $35.3 million.

He said the addition of four custodians, which board members agreed was greatly needed, will cost $128,604.

During the budget approval process, one board member complained about education getting a lower percentage of the county's total budget than in the past and another warned that trying to finance the federal No Child Left Behind program could be a big mistake.

Mark M. Wolkow, a board member from Abingdon, said the school system's operating budget has dropped to 47.7 percent of the county's total operating budget from 52 percent in recent years.

Paul S. Schatz, president of Harford County Education Association, the union representing the county's 2,600 teachers, said that if the school board's portion of the county budget had remained the same since 1996, the board would have an additional $27 million this year.

He complained that teachers are the lowest-paid in the Baltimore-Washington area.

County Administrative Officer John O'Neill Jr. said the lower percentage reflects some items, including buses, being transferred from the operating budget to the capital budget, which finances such things as school construction.

Robert B. Thomas Jr., a board member from Joppa, said the federal government pays about $75 per student to implement the No Child Left Behind program. "But the projected cost is more than $500 per student," he said. "My concern is that state and county education authorities are being shortchanged again in the name of improved education and student performance."

School officials don't expect the proposed budget to move the county up on the state list of school spending per pupil.

"Caroline County is at the bottom of the list, and Harford County is next to the bottom," said Haas. "We spend $6,822 per student, and Montgomery County will spend close to $11,000."

Tina Janouris, president of Harford County Council of PTA Inc., an umbrella group representing 45 county PTA groups, said "schools get a lot of bang for the buck."

"We get a lot for what they are spending," she said. "Is it sufficient? Absolutely not." Janouris said more money should go toward improving facilities and buying textbooks and equipment for teachers.

Cindy Mumby, a vice president of the PTA, has heard reports from elementary schools of children sharing textbooks because there are not enough.

Janouris said the proposed budget amounts to the "board going to the county executive to get what they think they can get, not what they need. It represents minimal improvement over last year."

She added: "I would like to see the county executive increase the budget beyond what the school board is asking for, not take away from it."

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