Schools receive a fraction of budget request

Board sought $9.5 million, received $1.3 million

`It was disheartening'

Programs must be cut

hiring of teachers is out

Harford County

April 06, 2003|By Ted Shelsby | Ted Shelsby,SUN STAFF

The fact that Harford County's school system fared better in this year's budget process than any other agency did little to ease the pain when school board members were forced to hack away at favorite programs to make financial ends meet.

"It was disturbing. It was disheartening. It was frustrating," longtime school board member Robert B. Thomas Jr. said of the board's efforts last week to adjust to a $9 million shortfall in the funding it hoped to receive for the school year beginning this fall.

"I've served on the board for eight years," said Thomas, who was its president during the 1998-1999 school year. "During five of those eight years, the board has had to reduce, cut or reconcile the budget to match what it received vs. the needs of the budget."

Thomas said he didn't blame County Executive James M. Harkins for the financial pinch on the school funding. "He has a difficult task given the economic conditions of the county.

"But the needs of the public school system are great," he added. "They are growing as the school system grows and they are going to have to be addressed in the next few years with additional resources."

As things stand now, the school board received $1.3 million of $9.5 million requested from the county in its proposed budget that went to the county executive in February.

As a result, school spokesman Donald R. Morrison said, "The whole master plan addition to the budget has been chopped."

"We asked for 23 elementary school teachers, 49 secondary school teachers and five special education teachers," said Morrison. "That was our No. 1 priority and that's out."

Morrison said the additional teachers would have reduced class size to the 25 recommended by the school board. Without these new teachers, class size would rise again in the new school year, he said.

Superintendent Jacqueline C. Haas acknowledged that it was painful to eliminate so many programs designed to benefit students.

Painful cuts

Haas said it was particularly disturbing to be forced to cut a program designed to help "struggling learners."

It hurt just as much, she said, not to be moving forward with the federal No Child Left Behind plan and the recommendations of Maryland's Thornton Commission, a landmark education program that legislators approved last year to address inequities among schools in wealthier and poorer areas.

Thomas expressed his concern about the federal program.

"We are setting ourselves up for failure with the No Child Left Behind plan," he said noting that it will cost significantly more than the county can afford.

Haas expressed hope that the school system would receive some Thornton money from the state this year.

One of the things that Haas said pained her the most was being forced to eliminate a program centered on "giving students a quality teacher in the class every day."

She said the reduced budget eliminates the school system's plan to hire 11 instruction specialists and mentors who would have worked to enhance the skills of young teachers.

Haas said 44 percent of the county's teachers have less than five years of experience.

Ordinary expenses

Haas said the school system received about $11 million in new funding for the year, but much of it was gobbled up by the cost of doing business.

Much of the new funding was absorbed by a $7.9 million increase in the cost of health and dental insurance for school employees.

She said higher school bus "fuel costs, utility and health benefit costs are eating into what we got."

Haas said she was happy that funding remains in place to buy 10 air-conditioned school buses that will be used primarily for transport to the John Archer School in Churchville, which serves disabled students.

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