Cecil County superintendent, county executive continue to clash over schools budget in contentious news releases

A $13 million shortfall in Cecil County’s education budget has pitted its Republican county executive against the district’s superintendent and continued in the form of battling news releases.

Cecil County’s school communities have been in an uproar since Superintendent Jeffrey Lawson warned in February that hundreds of staff and programs like band and sports would be cut without additional funding from the county. Accusations of misinformation and refusal to cooperate have flown between the county executive’s office and the school system’s central office over who is to blame for the district’s finances.

County Executive Danielle Hornberger, who funded Cecil County schools to the legal minimum level the three years prior, was blamed by some residents for the potential school cuts. She, in turn, has blamed the deficit on Lawson for his “failure to budget.”

Maryland’s school districts face tight budgets as federal funds to offset the coronavirus pandemic expire and new programs must be implemented as part of the Blueprint for Maryland’s Future, an education reform plan injecting billions of dollars into the state’s public schools over 10 years. More than 15,000 students attend Cecil County’s 30 public schools.

In February, the school board approved Lawson’s $270 million budget proposal, which used federal, state and local dollars to add new teachers and retain all positions and programs at risk of being eliminated. But the request, which was higher than the legal minimum, depended on the county covering a $21 million funding gap.

In response to the board approving the proposal, Hornberger said in March that Lawson and the board created “fear and harassment” during the budgeting process and that she would review the proposal closely.

On Monday, Hornberger submitted her finalized budget to the Cecil County Council with $97.5 million in school funding, $4 million more than the legal requirement but $13 million less than Lawson requested.

The state-mandated local share of school funding increased by $5 million in fiscal year 2025. Hornberger’s operational budget is an increase of $9 million compared to fiscal year 2024. She said the additional $4 million in operational funding came from a “lockbox” created in 2023 to “stave off tax hikes associated with the state Blueprint.” She presented the budget at Tuesday’s council meeting.

In a news release Monday, Hornberger said her budget features “the largest-ever appropriation of operational funding” for CCPS. The allocation will “protect teachers and important student-based programs such as gifted and talented, sports, music and the arts,” she said.

Lawson and Diana Hawley, president of the school board, in a joint news release Tuesday accused Hornberger of making false and misleading statements.

Lawson works directly for the Cecil County Board of Education, which appointed him. Board members are elected to four-year terms.

In a previous news release sent Thursday, Hornberger called on Lawson to “stop the rhetoric and do his job” by prioritizing spending, eliminating administrative bloat and being accountable for his “failure to budget and plan for our students’ success.”

Lawson and Hawley said their release that Hornberger’s comments about Lawson were offensive and unbecoming of the county’s top official.

In a Tuesday email to The Baltimore Sun, Hornberger emphasized that her budget is a 10% increase in school operations compared to last year. She said the school board has $18 million in an unspent fund balance — money that was not spent in previous years — that Lawson and Hawley should use to balance their budget.

“If they cannot do their jobs, perhaps it is time for them to consider stepping aside,” Hornberger said in the email.

The school system hasn’t mismanaged county, state or federal funds, Lawson and Hawley’s release says, and it has used money from its reserve of funds.

Hornberger’s “overreach in trying to control public education spending is beyond the scope of her office,” they added.

In her Thursday release, Hornberger advised the board to institute a two-year salary freeze for school administrators who make more than $100,000.

CCPS can’t institute a salary freeze because it would break employee agreements, Lawson and Hawley wrote Tuesday. They said the suggestion is “disturbing” when Hornberger’s budget includes salary bumps for her county administrators.

“To direct the angst of the public at our hard-working administrators does not reflect strong leadership but instead continues the pattern of an ‘us versus them’ mentality that is the hallmark of her administration,” they continued.

Lawson and the board will work to revise its fiscal year budget based on Hornberger’s proposal, which they said will include significant and “inevitable” cuts to positions and programs.