Recently, Harford County engaged in a public conversation with its teachers about pay and classroom spending. This problem is not unique to Harford County and is symptomatic of a statewide problem caused by increased state mandates, lack of control over educational spending by the county's funding authorities and increased strain on public dollars in a down economy.
On one side was the Harford County Education Association (HCEA), which represents the interests of teachers. They bemoaned that a county that is already spending half of every general fund dollar on K-12 education (this includes operating spending, debt service and other capital expenditures) is simply not spending enough on public schools and teacher salaries in particular.
On the other side was a growing public sentiment that tax burdens are high enough and that governments need to rein in spending. As evidence of this, consider a recent poll that showed that 96 percent of Marylanders think that they are taxed enough or too much; Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker's success in defeating a recall attempt; or California voters' approval of pension cuts for current and future city workers in San Diego and San Jose.
Recent state actions seem to have made the problems surrounding K-12 education funding worse. Passing teacher pension costs on to the counties and Baltimore City places more strain on already stretched dollars. While projected revenue estimates are expected to offset some of the expense, they are just estimates. Counties understandably are cautious about relying on these estimated offsets, as they have witnessed state estimates consistently fall short in the past.
The state's inability to find an equitable way to deal with maintenance of effort waivers may have created the biggest hurdle. Established as an attempt to set the floor for education spending, maintenance of effort was designed to ensure that education spending was never drastically reduced in one year. The recent economic downturn and the inability of counties to successfully seek a waiver have imparted a daunting lesson: There are repercussions to funding education above the maintenance of effort, especially when the economy turns for the worse. The floor legislators sought to create has now become the funding ceiling.
Unfortunately, the posturing on both sides has prevented Marylanders from having a real conversation about sensible solutions that can actually address the concerns of all.
If Maryland wants to improve classroom spending while not adding to its already high tax burden, then its leaders must take a serious look at eliminating the redundancies in administrative services between county governments and boards of education. According to Harford County Public Schools' organization chart of administration (dated July 2011), it staffs offices to perform the following functions, all of which have counterparts in the county government: human resources, purchasing/procurement, risk management, facilities, safety/security, information technology and capital projects. None of this affects what education is all about — the classroom, the students, the teachers.
Streamlining these services under the auspices of the county will potentially generate a couple of benefits. It will generate savings, at least to the extent that the number of senior executive positions can be reduced. It will eliminate the disparity in pay that exists between county employees and the administrative employees of the board of education, who are often paid more for similar jobs because of a history of "me too" clauses that earned their bargaining units the same raises and pay packages as teachers. But perhaps most importantly, it will move a rather large expense under the control and direction of those elected to manage the county's public money.
While most people would agree that curriculum and education policy are best left to independent boards of education that can at least limit the influence of politics, I think most reasonable people would also agree that the quality of a child's learning is not affected by who bought the student's desk, who processed the teacher's paycheck or who cut the grass.
As a teacher and assistant principal for 34 years, I know that public education is too important an issue to fall victim to the saber rattling of fiscal politics. Streamlining the administrative services of the county and the board of education appears to be a sensible solution that would free up existing dollars for our true priorities. The state should establish a comprehensive work group that consists of county officials, board of education officials and representatives of the involved labor associations to determine how to best deliver the administrative services that our school systems require. Failing that, Harford County will engage in such a study in order to present its findings at next year's session of the General Assembly.
David R. Craig, a retired educator, is the Harford County executive. His email is firstname.lastname@example.org.