Joe A. Hairston will appear before the County Council on Tuesday… (Kim Hairston, Baltimore…)
With elected officials and parents in Baltimore County clamoring for the school system to restore 196 teaching positions for next year, Superintendent Joe A. Hairston and county officials appear headed for a faceoff Tuesday over the district's $1.3 billion budget request.
At a budget hearing, Hairston and the school board are expected to tell the County Council whether they plan to follow the direction of County Executive Kevin Kamenetz and fund the teaching positions. But if they do not reinstate them, lawmakers and education advocates say they will push to make school district leadership more accountable to the public.
"How is Joe going to respond? There has to be a sense from him and the board that they understand the severity of the cuts. I don't see that yet," said Sen. James Brochin, a Baltimore County Democrat.
Hairston declined to comment on what he may say to the council Tuesday.
School officials have emphasized that no teachers will lose their jobs or be furloughed, but parents, officials and teachers say that is not the point: High school students will see class sizes rise and electives and Advanced Placement classes cut.
The budget battle comes after a year in which public criticism of Hairston and the board has increased because of several perceived missteps, including the system's failure to react quickly to school overcrowding in the York Road corridor, the sudden prohibition of some PTSA fundraising activities, and ethical questions surrounding the awarding of contracts.
"There have been so many other issues out there this year, that it would not be sending the right message to ignore this," said County Councilman David Marks, who represents the Towson area. "If he restores the positions, I think it enhances the superintendent's stature and says that he is flexible."
Some checks and balances need to be put into the system, said Brochin, if the school board does not take into account the views of the public. He said he might again introduce a bill for a hybrid school board next year. "We need to get the parents' point of view into the decision-making process," he said.
So far efforts to change the law to get an elected rather than appointed school board have failed, but next year, legislators say, those bills would be more likely to gain momentum.
Hairston, whose contract ends July 1, 2012, also risks losing support.
"I think that our officials … are very unhappy by the lack of responsiveness. If they thumb their nose at the request the county executive has made, I don't think there is any way the board could attempt to renew his contract," said Cheryl Bost, president of the teachers union.
County Council Chairman John Olszewski Sr., of Dundalk, agreed, saying leadership changes would be more likely if the school system refuses to cooperate.
"If your relationship isn't as sound as you want it to be, there is more of a chance of things changing at the Board of Education," he said. "This is the last year of Dr. Hairston's contract. If you don't have happy teachers, I am sure they will be lobbying for him not to get a new contract."
Pikesville County Councilwoman Vicki Almond said she and other county leaders are frustrated that they have little control over the school budget, even though it represents most of the county's spending. The County Council can reduce the size of the budget, but cannot increase it and can't order the superintendent to spend money on the teachers.
"The Board of Education has no accountability to us and we give them a very large percentage of the budget," said Almond, adding that it would be unlikely that the council would cut the school budget to send a message.
The school system employs about 8,900 teachers and about 5,000 non-instructional staff, according to state data for the 2009-2010 school year. The budget proposal does not call for any of those 5,000 positions to be eliminated through attrition.
In addition, the school district had 23 high-ranking administrators in the 2009-2010 school year, more than any district in the state, including Montgomery and Prince George's counties, which have about 35,000 more students than Baltimore County. The school system eliminated one high-level administrative position this year, but it also hired a new administrator last month from Montgomery County at the cost of $214,000.
While no elected officials are proposing to increase the school budget to handle the teaching cuts, several council members say the school district should look to other areas of the budget to reduce costs to pay for the teachers.
Olszewski said he has discussed with Hairston the idea that if there are teaching positions lost, there "should be some kind of comparative cuts at the administrative level, too."