Schools seek 12% increase

Budget proposal includes higher staffing, special education costs

December 24, 2006|By Mary Gail Hare | Mary Gail Hare,Sun Reporter

Harford County schools have asked for a 12 percent budget increase to pay for the opening of a new high and middle school complex, hiring more than 100 teachers and offsetting the spiraling costs of special education.

The proposed operating budget for fiscal 2008, which begins July 1, is $419 million. Of that, $220 million would come from the county and $195 million from state, with the federal government providing the rest. The county's share this year was $189 million, with the state shouldering $180 million.

If fully funded, the proposed budget would be the second-highest single-year increase for the school system in the past 20 years. The largest one-year spike came two years ago, when then-County Executive James M. Harkins funded the budget in full for the first time in the county's history.

"We put together a budget that contains needs for our schools," said budget director James Jewell. "We have increased business costs. We have to open a new school. And we have to fund special needs."

The proposed capital spending for new construction, additions and renovations is more than double any of the past three years - about $140 million, compared with $64 million this year and $66 million in 2006.

The costs for the August opening of Patterson Mill Middle and High School in Bel Air total $4.8 million. Among those expenses are 60 new staff members - in addition to those transferring from other schools - outfitting the new buildings and balancing enrollment from redistricting.

Special education costs are expected to reach $4.4 million and include additional staff - nearly 50 new positions, with a dozen of those related to transportation - to provide necessary services. Harford also pays for more than 160 out-of-county placements for special-needs children. Some of those tuition costs are as much as $100,000 annually.

"We are looking at tuition and enrollment increases each year," Jewell said. "Federal law mandates we pay these costs for these children, some until they are 21 years old. We investigate all possible scenarios before we send these students out of the county."

Salary and benefit increases account for nearly $17.5 million, or 5 percent of the proposal. To stay competitive with surrounding jurisdictions, the county must augment teacher salaries, Jewell said.

"We are hoping the county looks favorably on these salary increases," Jewell said.

The system's health and dental premiums will rise about 8 percent next year, adding $4.9 million to the proposal.

Although enrollment has dropped slightly every year since 2004 - from 40,294 in 2004 to 39,487 projected in 2007 - the budget includes 109 new positions to improve and enhance the system at a cost of $8.5 million.

"This is our priority list for educational enhancements," Jewell said. "It is a new initiative with new people."

The Board of Education will review the proposal before submitting it to the executive and County Council, which will enact a schools budget in May.

County Executive David R. Craig, a former educator, said he had not seen the budget request, but he had instructed all departments that this year's budget process "would not be carte blanche."

"I have told the school system that it is going to be very hard to justify an increase in staff when school population has declined and is expected to decline over the next two years, especially given the amount of new staff they got over the last two years," Craig said in a phone interview.

Sun reporter Justin Fenton contributed to this article.

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