School board weighs budget

$304 million spending plan includes more for books, teachers, transportation

January 25, 2004|By Lane Harvey Brown | Lane Harvey Brown,SUN STAFF

The Harford County Board of Education plans to approve a fiscal 2005 operating budget this week that includes more money for teachers, textbooks and transportation.

In spite of dire state and county budget forecasts, the $304 million budget is 9.5 percent larger than last year's, according to school officials.

James Jewell, the school system's new budget director, said that the system was told Thursday that the $13 million Harford County was to receive in Thornton and other state funding has been reduced to about $12.2 million. He said the schools will forward the budget request without subtracting that amount, but the county is not likely to make up the cut.

The school board, during deliberations for the past several weeks, added nearly $2.15 million to Superintendent Jacqueline C. Haas' budget request, in some cases restoring funding to areas of the budget that had been cut since 1999.

Board President Robert S. Magee said Friday that while he and other members are acutely aware of county and state budget constraints, that should not prevent them from keeping the schools' needs in the forefront.

"It is our job to ascertain what's needed in the school system and let the public know what is needed to run a first-class public school system," Magee said. "If we don't, how would people know what's needed?"

The plan seeks about $1.7 million to hire 20 more elementary and 20 more secondary classroom teachers, Magee said, to begin to meet the board's goal of keeping class sizes small, typically between 18 and 25, depending on grade level.

The number represents about half the teachers the system needs to fulfill that goal, Magee said. Last year, the board asked for 80 teachers, the full number needed, and got funding for none. So members decided this year to spread the request over several budgets, he said.

Another 13.5 teachers are required by law next year to fulfill the state's full-day kindergarten mandate, Magee said.

Jewell said the average cost of hiring a new teacher, with salary and benefits, is about $48,548.

"One of the things we've been following is the number of teachers they're allocating," said Deb Merlock, a vice president of the Harford County Council of PTAs.

The board also seeks about $372,000 to make athletic directors full-time positions, rather than dividing their days with classroom instruction time.

Vice President Robert Thomas said at last week's board meeting that the eight directors "are the backbone to making the sports in each school work ... in a consistent and uniform manner. ... Certainly it may not be our highest budget priority, but I think it's worth keeping it on the burner."

The school system is facing more than $6 million in increased health and dental care costs, Jewell said, or about 13 percent to 17 percent in increases.

Utilities are projected to go up about $992,000 next year, he said, but $370,000 of that is earmarked for the new Aberdeen High School building.

Board members voted to add $200,000 for plant operations and maintenance, noting that these budgets, too, had been pared for several years.

Transportation costs for alternative education, which next year will include Harford's Science and Math Academy at Aberdeen High School, would increase by $75,000.

Phase 1 of the county's plan to expand alternative education is also high on the board's and superintendent's priority list, with $259,998 included in the proposed budget to fund five positions, including a school nurse, a psychologist and support staff.

Magee, a longtime supporter of alternative education programs that offer classes for a range of students, said the funding is a start.

"We know everybody doesn't learn the same way," he said. "We need to meet those varied needs."

The system is also negotiating with its four unions on wage increases. Donald R. Morrison, spokesman for the schools, said he could not comment on the process.

The unions are the Harford County Education Association; the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees; the Harford County Educational Services Council; and the Association of Public School Administrators and Supervisors of Harford County.

The board must submit its proposed budget to County Executive James M. Harkins by the beginning of next month. Its next meeting is at 4:30 p.m. Tuesday at Bel Air Middle School.

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