'We're on our way': Harford school board approves budget with nearly 100 additional positions for next year

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Jun. 11—Harford County Public Schools is making progress in restoring staff positions, after having to cut more than 130 slots in administrative and instructional sections two years ago, but "we're not quite there yet," according to Superintendent Sean Bulson.

The $519.5 million unrestricted operating budget for fiscal 2022, which was approved unanimously by the Board of Education on Monday, includes funding for an increase of 99.6 positions, the bulk of which are related to roles such as teaching, counseling and paraprofessional work.

The board also approved — unanimously — an $85 million restricted budget that covers grant-funded positions and activities, and funds an additional 77.5 positions, nearly all of which are related to counseling and teaching. A $23.2 million food service budget and $53.1 million capital budget were unanimously approved by the board as well.

The superintendent highlighted during his January budget presentation to the school board the need to hire and retain effective teachers and staff — based on the top priorities for next year's budget indicated in a community survey — as well as make greater investments in special education services and provide professional support to teachers, and academic and mental health support to students affected by the COVID-19 pandemic.

The school board submits its budget request to the county and state governments during the winter, and then adopts the final version of the budget — the request reconciled with the allocations granted by the local, state and federal governments — in June ahead of the July 1 start of the next fiscal year.

Board members had to make difficult choices about the fiscal 2020 budget in June of 2019, the first budget crafted by Bulson after he started his tenure with HCPS in July of 2018. The county did not fully fund the school board's request for FY20, although the $256.5 million allocated by County Executive Barry Glassman was $10.7 million higher than what he provided the previous year.

School system officials initially expected they would have to cut more than 200 positions because of not being fully funded on the local side; 134.5 slots in the areas of instruction, school administration and the HCPS central office were cut when the board adopted the 2020 budget, as more state funding was allocated than originally projected.

Patrice Ricciardi, who was part of a slate of new board members elected in November 2018 and sworn in July 2019, asked Bulson Monday how the school system is faring in terms of staffing compared to where things stood two years ago.

"Are we almost back where we were, at the point when we had to make some of those decisions?" Ricciardi asked.

"We're on our way," he said. "We've made some progress, but we're not quite there yet."

Deborah Judd, assistant superintendent for business services, noted that the school system has "made great strides" in restoring assistant principal positions, as the loss of some of those positions was "a huge hit to our schools."

"I think we've done a good job with this budget, effective July 1, making sure that we have an assistant principal in all of our schools," she said.

Harford County government fully funded the $293.8 million requested by the school board this year for the operating budget, a $16.8 million increase from the amount allocated for fiscal 2021. This year is the second in a row that Glassman has fully funded the schools' request for local dollars.

"We'd certainly like to thank Mr. Glassman and his staff, and also the County Council, for approving his budget allocation," Eric Clark, director of budget for HCPS, told the school board.

The state, which provides the second-largest share of funding, allocated $218.2 million, a decrease of more than $690,000 from the current fiscal year. Federal funding remains the same at $420,000.

The allocation from the school system's fund balance, or cash reserves, is nearly $2.99 million, compared to $2 million for the current year.

The board approved an operating budget with 15 amendments, many of which cover funding for 31 additional positions beyond those in the board's initial funding request. Clark noted that the HCPS budget office typically works with staff throughout the school system, once the budget request is sent to local and state governments, "to make small changes," including any positions that might be needed in the next school year.

The additional positions in the amendments included a teacher specialist for the Pathways In Technology, Early College High School, or P-TECH, program at Joppatowne High School; an administrative support position for counselors in the Alternative Education Program; a bookkeeper at Patterson Mill Middle/High School; a Teacher Academy of Maryland specialist at Harford Technical High School; and an elementary paraeducator as the Judy Center program at Magnolia Elementary School is expanded to Halls Cross Roads Elementary in Aberdeen. The Judy Center provides early childhood education for children 5 years old and younger.

Other amendments cover 10 inclusion helpers to work with students with special needs, 10 paraeducators for the STRIVE program, five secondary school teachers — four at Bel Air Middle School and one at Havre de Grace High School — and seven elementary school teachers in art, library, music, physical education and gifted and talented programs.

More amendments reflect reductions in operations spending, including more than $366,000 for seven pre-kindergarten positions that will be covered through state grants instead, nearly $63,500 in surplus clerical salary funds, $400,000 for summer programs that will be covered by federal grants and more than $1.6 million that will be saved by having eligible HCPS retirees switch to the Medicare Advantage health insurance plan.

Officials have been able to use the savings from reducing spending in such categories to support the additional positions, according to Clark and Judd.

Another position is that of administrative assistant to the Special Initiatives director. The director, who has not been hired yet, will serve as a liaison responsible for implementing initiatives in the Blueprint for Maryland's Future, which became law this spring. The Blueprint is a plan to increase education funding statewide by about $4 billion over this decade.

The school system will work with the county government to identify a person to serve as director, Bulson told the school board, noting that person will need administrative support.

"We do realize that the Blueprint is an immense job, and so we believe that person will need their own assistant to help manage this, because it's going to be, logistically, very challenging," Bulson said.

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