—– By: Ann Costantino —–
After four hours of discussion on Tuesday night, Baltimore County’s school board passed its FY 2020 Operating Budget, following weeks of input from concerned citizens, teachers and bargaining units on how to prioritize system funds after Baltimore County Executive Johnny Olszewski announced in January the county’s fiscal crisis and an $81 million shortfall.
Following several modifications and interjections, the board approved the highly amended budget which included requests for increased school support staff, raises for aides and free breakfast for students who attend 22 of the county’s highest need schools.
The board also approved a budget caveat: that Olszewski prioritize teacher staffing levels as he deliberates on the budget and decides what may need to be cut as the school system awaits county approval in the coming weeks. The budget request began at $1.6 billion in early January; the current total, after the approved changes and a reduction of $20 million more offered by system staff, is still being calculated.
Olszewski, a former Baltimore County high school teacher, strongly supports teachers and has been vocal about balancing the budget, but not on the backs of educators.
But despite the county’s budget crisis, Interim Superintendent Verletta White wanted to make the school system’s fiscal health clear. “I just want to remind everyone …. that BCPS is in good financial standing,” she said. “I am fully aware of the county’s shortfall and am sensitive to the need to identify cost savings… But our BCPS budget is in the black and has been in the black for years,” she said. “…By law, BCPS is not a department of Baltimore County government. We are set apart so that we can maintain our primary focus on students’ needs,” she said.
In January, Olszewski asked the school board to tighten its belt. In response, White recommended slashing teachers’ pay increases and cost of living adjustments after Board Chair Kathleen Causey and Vice Chair Julie Henn asked her to retain staffing levels as she worked to reduce the budget based on Olszewski’s request. White said that the only way staff could be preserved was if their pay increases were cut.
After told their pay increases were on the chopping block, teachers were asked to rally by the Teachers Association of Baltimore County (TABCO) at Baltimore County school headquarters and implore board members to fully fund their pay increases and the entire budget. Over 400 teachers showed up in protest earlier this month, yet neither the school board nor Olszewski ever expressed a desire to cut their pay increases as a means to balance the budget.
Much ado about nothing?
In a statement to The Baltimore Post on Tuesday night, Olszewski’s spokesman, T.J. Smith, doubled-down on Olszewski’s previous sentiments about supporting teachers. “The County Executive has asked all departments to make tough, but reasonable and smart decisions with their budgets. He implored BCPS to do the same. The County Executive does not dictate how the BCPS budget is formulated, but he has encouraged BCPS to produce a budget that recognizes our difficult budget realities while not negatively impacting hardworking educators…”
The board heard many requests over the past several weeks that asked members not reduce White’s initial $1.6 billion budget proposal, but to ask for what the system needs. Even White said she preferred her original budget before she was faced with having to find items to cut.
Abby Beytin, TABCO’s president, did too. Beytin asked the board to request the “full package” at Tuesday’s meeting, stating that the package also “includes raises for our teachers and all staff…” she said.
While it was no surprise that the school board approved the budget without touching teachers’ pay increases, some members also asked for re-allocations, additions and some reductions as a way to also refocus the budget more on students’ basic needs, safety and supportive staff who work in the system’s school buildings.
- Rod McMillion asked for a $2-an-hour pay increase for teacher assistants and lunch aides, which would bring their hourly rate to $12.10. Included was approval for a benefits package for the teacher assistants. (Fiscal impact: approximately $69,000 for each). He also asked for a $100,000 pilot program to install swing-arm cameras on buses which travel in high-traffic areas as a means to catch vehicles that fail to stop when students board and de-board the buses. Approved.
- Lisa Mack asked to add eight social workers, eight pupil personnel workers, five school counselors, and three school psychologists. Mack suggested taking $1 million from central office staff’s travel budget to pay for the $1.4 million fiscal impact, and savings gained by switching elementary students to less expensive Chromebooks. Approved.
- Board Chair Kathleen Causey asked for an improvement to a line item already included in the budget: 15 minutes added to the school day. The board voted to increase recess time by 15 minutes for elementary students and allow high schools to use the extra time to implement a semesterized hybrid schedule option for classes. Fiscal impact included in the original budget: $25.7 million. Approved.
- Lily Rowe asked for a $50,000 audit of the transportation department, for more “effective and efficient transportation.” Rowe also asked for $1 million in funding in order to provide free breakfast for students at 22 eligible schools. “I think that children cannot learn when they are hungry,” Rowe said. Both were approved.
- Vice Chair Julie Henn asked for the kindergarten device-to-student ratio to be maintained at 5:1, instead of changed to 2:1 as called for in White’s budget proposal. She also asked for a reduction of $2.9 million from the Curriculum and Instruction department. Both approved. But attempts to change device ratios in the rest of the elementary grades to 2:1 were met with opposition, as was a re-allocation of funds to allow for a maximum of two students-per-seat on school buses. Both failed, as did several motions to reduce central office budgets. An amendment for a $75,000 allocation for Maryland SPCA’s Wagging Tales Literacy and Humane Education Program also failed to gain the support of the majority of the board.
At large board member, and former Baltimore County Executive Roger Hayden, asserted the school board’s autonomy. Speaking about passing a budget irrespective of what any county executive may request, Hayden said, “Our job is to ask for what we need for our children. Period. End of paragraph.” Hayden also served on the school board for 12 years in the nineteen-nineties.
Some board members sought to scale back the system’s laptop-for-every-student technology program as a way to make up for the budget shortfall. The program known as STAT, for Students and Teachers Accessing Tomorrow, was introduced under former Superintendent S. Dallas Dance, PhD who left the system in 2017 amid a criminal investigation into work he did as a consultant for a school system vendor.
In response to some of the proposed amendments which sought to scale back the program, Interim Superintendent White said, “We are longing for yesterday, but is yesterday where we want to be when it comes to toting around (books)?”
But due to STAT’s expense, even Olszewski has considered cuts to the program.
The Baltimore Post asked Olszewski how he felt about STAT’s return on investment, considering some disappointing reports on student achievement after five years into the program. Spokesman, T.J. Smith responded, “The County Executive believes in supporting programs and resources that make the most impact for our students. Considering our front-line needs, it’s time we re-allocate some of these resources where they are needed most: the people delivering classroom instruction.”
From its inception, STAT was marketed as a transformational teaching and learning approach with a promise that digital curriculum, delivered through devices, could provide a “personalized learning” environment for students in order to meet students’ individual needs. Dance, who traveled extensively while he led BCPS, stated during conferences and keynote speeches that he aligned the school system’s entire budget in order to pay for the program.
Although interim Superintended White told The Baltimore Sun in a recent interview that STAT was never about academic achievement, the county has spent and committed more than $300 million in laptop lease costs, alone. Tens of millions more is spent annually for software and licensing fees.
In an attempt to reduce the budget, but maintain the program, Interim Superintendent White proposed replacing elementary school devices with less expensive Chromebooks as a way to shave $17 million from the budget over the next three years.
Asked about Olszewski’s vision for Baltimore County as a 21st century school which uses technology, Smith said, “Education is the foundation of strong communities, and the County Executive is committed to supporting and investing in Baltimore County public schools. After the County Executive was made aware of the $81 million deficit in December, he immediately took steps to share this information with Baltimore County residents. He is committed to getting Baltimore County’s fiscal house in order while fighting in Annapolis for $100 million each year for the next five years in school construction funding to honor prior commitments. This will not happen over one budget cycle and requires honest conversations, transparency, and public engagement.”
But White said she saw the attempts by some board members, as they recommended changes to the budget which involved STAT, as seeking some type of retribution for the actions of former Superintendent Dance who tarnished the system’s reputation when he was jailed last year after prosecutors found that he lied on his financial disclosure statements. He was one of two top school employees to be charged with criminal activity last year.
Dance spent four months in a Virginia jail after prosecutors found that he did not disclose income on legal forms he signed, income he earned consulting for other school systems, organizations and two school system vendors. He was released from jail in August. (In an unrelated crime, Bob Barrett, a former community and government liaison for the district, was convicted of tax fraud connected to a bribery scheme that also involved the school system.)
At the end of the budget discussion, preceding the vote, White cut to the chase by denouncing Dance and his actions. “What the former superintendent did was wrong. And we denounce it in every way. But I don’t think, with some of the motions that are coming forward, and some of the strategies that are being put forward, that it is fair to punish the school system and the value of the instructional program as a way to denounce what the former superintendent did,” she said. “We denounce what the former superintendent did. We don’t want to have anything to do with what the former superintendent did. We are not him; he is not us. We are BCPS. We are BCPS strong,” White said.
Chairwoman Causey replied, “That is correct. We are BCPS. We are all BCPS. Now, let’s get back to the budget.”