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Updated: Balt. County schools’ budget analysis reveals sacrifices to fund multi-million dollar laptop program
Posted by J. Simpson on 17th May 2018
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Op-Ed written by: J. Simpson.  Updated: 5/18/18

This story was originally published, and is being updated, in the STAT-us BCPS blog.



Baltimore County schools’ emergency funds and retirees’ health care benefits to be tapped to pay for controversial laptop program?

A scathing county budget analysis of the school district’s laptop-per-student program known as STAT reveals BCPS plans to tap an “unprecedented” level of emergency funds for next year, more than $30 million. Leaders might also shore up the controversial digital initiative via a fund for retirees’ health benefits.

There’s a clear fiscal crisis pending it seems—including Baltimore County Public Schools pulling $31 million from the district’s fund balance, a year-end surplus also known as an emergency fund. Using such funds highlights the digital initiative’s unsustainability over time. 

The proposed 2018-19 “budget for BCPS also relies upon the use of an unprecedented level (more than $30 million) in BCPS fund balance as a revenue source,” the county Office of the Auditor budget analysis notes. “Such a fund balance, by the school system’s own projections, will not be available at a similar magnitude in future years.”

Under STAT, as continued by current Interim Superintendent Verletta White, there will be an ongoing four-year turnover of laptop leases, massive spending now approaching $300 million for the program’s first several years alone (The 2014 $205 million laptop contract–more than $100 million of which has been spent so far, according to school officials–and another contract “refresh” for a separate $140 million was recently awarded to the same bidder this spring).

That staggering amount far outpaces other school districts nationwide and does not include the many software curricula, tech infrastructure, and related costs for tens of millions more annually.

The County Office of the Auditor points out that the General Fund portion of the County’s budget would increase by $28.3 million, including new funding for the STAT program, and related curriculum materials. “These increases are significantly offset by the elimination of retiree healthcare funding, which totaled $25 million in FY 2018.”

It’s unclear what that “elimination” means, though recent discussion among county and school officials noted  a “budget appropriation transfer” from the retirees’ fund, to be used to pay for STAT, a possible shell game that might constitute raiding the fund? Or an ongoing tapping of underfunded retirement and benefits monies? More to follow in STAT-US BCPS blog updates here.

The County Office of the Auditor’s budget analysis informs the council and county leadership, who then determine appropriate funding for various county departments, including schools. A budget work session was held in council chambers in Towson on Thursday. Previously, the three Republican county council members (Wade Kach, David Marks, and Todd Crandall) voted to strip $14 million from the STAT program, but were outvoted by Democrats on the council.

The council’s final vote on the BCPS proposed budget is slated for next Thursday, May 24.

Baltimore County Council members, executive leadership, and state representatives, should review this analysis closely and judiciously. (See excerpts below.) The budget analysis also offers options to keep burdensome laptop costs from going the direction now headed, a scenario which seems to be threatening state Maintenance of Effort (MOE) requirements, a state formula for school funding, and other school needs. An approval might also lock the county in to higher taxpayer-funded contributions for years to come.

As the auditor’s budget analysis stated: “it is important to note that committing ongoing funds above the MOE level represents a binding funding commitment. Once the Council appropriates such funds, the County is unable to “pull back” its spending authorization on a per-pupil basis – in the upcoming fiscal year or in future fiscal years.”

(Laptops in high schools certainly make more sense, but the latest $140 mill round to HP/Daly Computers was yet another scandal, costing twice the industry standard. Such expenditures are on top of ongoing questionable multi-million in-development education software being tested on district children, totaling tens of millions in no-bid contracts yet to be audited. For example, $10 million alone to Discovery Education in a no-bid contract for online textbooks and related.)

Among other elements to review, excerpts from the Office of the Auditor schools budget analysis for 2018-19:

S.T.A.T. Program Funding (3505-0415)
A number of options exist for scaling back S.T.A.T program funding. This analysis identifies two such options. Each option would reduce the appropriation to Education’s “Other Instructional Costs” Program (3505), which does not include any salary costs.

Option A: Reduce S.T.A.T. funding above MOE, suggesting that the Board concentrate funding at the middle school level and provide loaner devices to interested high school students ($25 million conservative projection)….

Option B: Reduce S.T.A.T. funding by cost of new lease, suggesting that the Board consider a revised implementation for grades 6-12 rather than grades 1-12 ($14 million).….”

——

As again referenced: 

“The proposed FY 2019 budget for BCPS also relies upon the use of an unprecedented level (more than $30 million) in BCPS fund balance as a revenue source (see Exhibits 5 and 6). Such fund balance, by the school system’s own projections, will not be available at a similar magnitude in future years (see page 83 of the FY 2019 Board Proposed Operating Budget).”

“The proposed budget relies on the use of approximately $31.8 million of BCPS’s fund balance, which BCPS projects will total $29.7 million at the end of FY 2018 and $17.0 million at the end of FY 2019.”

——

Lastly, among other costs/school needs to be covered, and questions to raise at the county work session and elsewhere:

“BCPS should be prepared to discuss:

  • Multi-year plans to increase the number of guidance counselors, social workers, pupil personnel workers, and psychologists;
  • Specific details on the roles of the School Climate Core School-Based Support Teams; and
  • The schools at which mentoring programs are offered and the types of mentoring opportunities offered to staff and students.”

Overall, after years of leadership controversy at the county public schools, it seems rather clear that fiscal professionals in-the-know understand that the costs and K-12 implementation of this laptop-per-student program are unsustainable. School and county leaders need to look out for students who have many other service needs, teachers who must pay money out of their own pockets for classroom supplies, and taxpayers who are footing the bill for an apparent ill-thought-out corporate-backed initiative.

This story will be updated.

– J. Simpson is a former reporter at The Miami Herald and a freelance writer based in Baltimore. She can be reached at jcscribe@yahoo.com.