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—– By: Ann Costantino —–
Upset by the suggestion that their pay increases could take a hit while Baltimore County Public school administrators rework next year’s operating budget in order to make up for a $91 million shortfall, teachers are poised to confront the school board next Tuesday at the urging of the Teachers Association of Baltimore County (TABCO), whose president has put a target on the backs of the school board, asking teachers to tell board members to “politely and professionally (explain) … that they cannot balance the budget on the backs of educators.”
But the notion that school board members removed teachers’ pay raises and cost of living adjustments – in the first place – is erroneous according to some vocal board members. And those board members are still trying to clear up the misleading statements.
“Misinformation about the BCPS budget continues to spread. Teachers – here are the facts,” said Vice Chair Julie Henn on her school board Facebook page. “Each year, the superintendent and staff prepare a budget for the Board to review. The Board then can vote to approve this budget – as is, or vote to make changes… Teachers – this Board knows you are the heart of everything we do. We love you and we have your backs,” Henn said.
Earlier this month, after Baltimore County Executive Johnny Olszewski delivered sobering news that the school system would have to reduce its $1.6 billion budget by roughly $91 million due to the county’s economic problems, Interim Superintendent Verletta White offered a revised budget in which she stated teachers’ pay raises would have to be sacrificed.
White said she was asked to rework the budget by Henn and Board Chair Kathleen Causey. The statement was quickly inferred to mean that Henn and Causey asked for teachers’ raises to be axed.
Lily Rowe, an elected member of the board who represents district six, said that not only did that not happen, but she also says she does not have all of the information from district administration to know what would be prudent to even trim from the budget.
“Even as a member of the Board of Education, I have not seen a line item budget and I do not know what many of these categories in our budget book are, specifically. It’s impossible to tell what areas might be opportunities for cost savings. I am personally committed to the schoolhouse and making sure as many dollars as possible reach the classroom,” Rowe said in a statement to The Baltimore Post.
In a public statement, Rowe specifically questioned a column called “other” in the budget proposal that makes up 78.8 percent of the Superintendent Office’s budget. “Yesterday I posted a chart that showed an ‘other’ for the school system budget of $438 million. Today I would like you to see how most of that money, whatever ‘other’ buys, is not in the schoolhouse. Of that $438 million, the schoolhouse get less than $1 million all schools combined. You should also take note that this ‘other’ category is so large in scope as to equal about half of all teacher and schoolhouse staff wages. That is a massive ‘other,’” Rowe said on her school board Facebook page.
As for what that “other” is, Rowe said she did not know. But according to a document archived by The Baltimore Post, which was prepared by the administration last year and answered questions regarding the 2019 Operating Budget, the school system acknowledged that its instructional technology program has accounted for the “largest proposed increases” in the “Other Instructional Costs” column, since 2014.
That instructional program, called STAT for Students and Teacher Accessing tomorrow, was former Superintendent S. Dallas Dance’s signature initiative which aimed to provide “personalized learning” digital curriculum for each student, through the use of educational software that can identify students’ weakness and strengths, and test progress in real time, through online “adaptive” software.
The idea was to cater to the individual needs of students – or provide an equitable learning environment – regardless of students’ zip code, economic status, and the strengths or weaknesses of the teachers who teach them.
The program also aimed to provide access to technology for all students since not all families can afford computers, something that puts those students at a disadvantage, rendering them unable to compete with students adept at various technologies, and making them unable to “compete globally,” a phrase often used by Dance to justify the program.
While the importance of equity has not been disputed, results of the STAT program have been. And the steep costs of the program – which has topped roughly $350 million in hardware costs alone – have redirected system resources away from other needs which impact equitable learning environments in other ways, for Baltimore County’s 113,000 students.
Even still, education advocate, Dayana Bergman, who has chronicled her journey as the parent of special education students, cautions administrators to be methodical if and when scaling back the STAT program. The problem, she says, is that special education is now tied to STAT and removing STAT, she fears, will impact special education supports and services. Bergman said, “I don’t believe some advocates should throw the baby out with the bathwater when it comes to STAT. The STAT program over the years has grown and currently has new departments that used to once be under the Special Education umbrella like Assistive Technology that provides technology equipment for Special Education Students to be able to communicate,” she said. “We also see departments like the Home and Hospital Teaching Program that provides robots for students who are very fragile and cannot physically attend a classroom environment due to a physical condition or emotional condition. STAT has become more than just one-to-one devices, and making cuts to the program should be done with a fine toothed comb. Otherwise, you could harm our most vulnerable students in our education system. You cannot throw the baby out with the bathwater on this one,” Bergman said.
Smaller class sizes, more teacher supports, and increased staffing to service the district’s special education population are among many complaints brought to school board members over the years, items which fall under allocations in the operating budget.
Superintendent White aimed to address some of those needs in her first proposed budget. But when the county executive informed the system that it had to cut requests from its proposed budget, White honed in on teachers’ pay raises, reducing her proposal by $85 million, while also proposing the removal of teachers’ cost of living adjustments, as a means to lower the number.
But even County Executive Olszewski, a former educator, says to leave those pay raises alone.
In a public statement made earlier this week, Olszewski said “We have to find ways to be smarter and more strategic about how we spend taxpayer dollars, including in the school system. But to be very clear, while our fiscal situation is challenging, we should not address our challenges on the backs of our educators. We must prioritize our spending so that we can put our people first. I am confident there are opportunities for savings that will not deny our educators what they deserve,” Olszewski said. His full statement can be viewed here.
Teachers are scheduled to protest at next week’s school board meeting, scheduled for Feb. 5. The rally will start in the parking lot at 5:30pm at Baltimore County school headquarter’s Greenwood campus at 6901 N. Charles Street, Building E, in Towson. The 6:30pm meeting will be live streamed.