The Harford County school board backed Superintendent Sean Bulson’s budget request Monday night in a 6-3 vote.
Bulson proposed a budget with a $47.3 million or 7.7% increase over the current school year mostly by asking the county government for an increase in local funding of $40 million.
In his budget proposal, Bulson said salaries, insurance, special education and transportation costs are expected to rise $35 million while 124 teaching positions funded by grants expiring at the end of this school year must be moved to the operating budget and 48 new staff positions are needed to cover new special education programs.
“Whenever we’re building a budget, we come at it with the perspective of what is going to improve student achievement, and in great confidence that’s what I’m saying we’ve proposed,” Bulson said. “In the last month, we’ve seen bills coming due for things like algebra textbooks and other curricular things where the prices have gone up dramatically. We’re trying to find ways to cover cost increases in just about every type of thing that we spend money on.”
The school board will present the budget to County Executive Bob Cassilly by March 1, and he will respond with proposed funding levels by April 15. The County Council must approve final local funding levels by June 15 before the school board approves a final budget by June 30.
Before the vote, board President Aaron Poynton proposed reducing the superintendent’s request by $5 million while moving $11.5 million from the district’s reserve fund balance to the operating budget. Deborah Judd, assistant superintendent for business services, estimated the district’s current fund balance at $30 million to $35 million.
“We have engaged early and often with our funding partners to develop a budget that we believe would be fully supported by them. These discussions revealed a significant gap between the superintendent’s proposed budget and the available funding,” Poynton said. “We’re asking the administration to identify $5 million.”
During a public comment period at the start of the meeting, school staff preemptively criticized Poynton.
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“It has been shared that some members of this board plan to put forth your own budget, a budget that has been formed behind closed doors with intent to please the county executive,” said Crystal Rufenacht, who identified herself as a district graduate and current educator. “It’s really an insult to the people you say you value.”
Board members Carol Mueller and Wade Sewell criticized Poynton for bad negotiation tactics this early in the process.
“I just want to make this clear. If you ask for less, you are guaranteed to get less,” Mueller said. “We’re in the middle of negotiations right now. To reduce your ask now guarantees that you’re going to be able to offer less.”
Poynton defended his proposed cuts to the superintendent’s budget proposal as realistic based on meetings with County Council members and Cassilly.
“Can the County Council move things around, sure, but do you want to take that bet?” Poynton said. “They’ve never done it in the past, and my sense is there is no political will to do it this time.”
Board members Mueller, Sewell, Diane Alvarez, Carol Bruce, Denise Perry and Melissa Hahn voted in favor of the superintendent’s budget proposal.
Board members Terri Kocher and Lauren Strauss joined Poynton in voting against the superintendent’s budget proposal.