Howard school officials propose scaling back Blueprint plans to address $67.3M funding gap

May 10—The Howard County Public School System is considering two budget balancing scenarios that ask for additional county funding while cutting school system spending in order to address a $67.3 million gap between County Executive Calvin Ball's proposed $1.1 billion education operating budget and the school board's initial request.

"We wanted to exercise as many potential knobs and dials and levers as possible to try and increase revenue ... and then decrease expenditures ... without creating significant impacts financially to the system next year," HCPSS Chief Administrative Officer Jahantab Siddiqui told the school board at a May 4 budget work session.

The proposed balancing scenarios seek to maintain negotiated staff salary increases, costs associated with opening Guilford Park High School in Jessup in August and costs needed to "minimize disruption" of student transportation services amid school start time changes.

But without "significant increase in county revenues," Superintendent Michael Martirano warned that the school system would have to delay implementing certain Blueprint for Maryland's Future legislative mandates. The Blueprint calls for billions of dollars of state and local investment across five programmatic pillars: early childhood education, high-quality and diverse teachers and leaders, college and career readiness, more resources for students to be successful, and governance and accountability.

"There's multiple places where we are making compromises that will either set us up for a fiscal failure later on, where we're not going to have [prekindergarten] expanded to the point that we need to, or we're not in compliance with workforce development in year one," HCPSS Blueprint Coordinator Timothy Guy said at the May 4 work session.

[ $1.1 billion proposed budget for Howard's public schools fully funds teacher salary increases ]

"Scenario 1″ requests $15 million in county funding in conjunction with a $29.3 million reduction in school system expenditures. It would decrease the number of full-time equivalent new staff positions from 327.55 to 164.6. "Scenario 2″ asks for an additional $10 million in county funds, but would result in $34.3 million in expenditure cuts and reduce the number of new staff positions to 136. Neither scenario proposes reducing existing staff positions.

Under Scenario 2, the school system would also postpone Blueprint-required expansion of free full-day prekindergarten services for 3- and 4-year-olds whose parents meet income eligibility requirements. The Blueprint implementation plan submitted by HCPSS in March aimed to increase the number of public school prekindergarten slots from 700 to 1,220 and the number of private slots from 368 to 374 for next school year, pending sufficient funding and staffing.

Scenario 2 would also cut approximately $3.5 million in funding for the county's Workforce Development Board to implement career counseling services for all middle and high school students. The Blueprint's college and career readiness pillar required the district to spend $62 per student on the initiative in fiscal 2024.

"That's actually the largest Blueprint cost that we could say we would be out of compliance with," said Darin Conforti, the school system's executive director of budget.

Guy said other counties are similarly faced with cutting education expenditures or raising revenues through taxes or other means to meet both short- and long-term Blueprint mandates.

"Those are the [realities] that we're facing across the state to get these plans through," Guy said.

After the County Council adopts its budget later this month, Siddiqui said the school system will need to amend its implementation plan based on available local and state funding. While the Blueprint's seven-member Accountability and Implementation Board has the power to withhold state funding if it feels a certain mandate is not being carried out satisfactorily, the body said in a May 8 memo that no funds would be withheld from school districts until May 2024.

[ Howard public schools' Blueprint plan highlights college and career programs, preschool expansion ]

Even with the AIB's flexibility on plan approval, school officials say they face difficult budgeting decisions for fiscal 2024.

Both of Howard's scenarios propose reducing the $63.7 million budget gap by approximately $23 million through the use of three one-time school system funding sources: $15 million from the unassigned general fund balance, $6.7 from the technology services fund and $1.3 million from projected investment income.

Martirano warned that the use of one-time funding was not sustainable and comes with risk, since the unassigned fund balance is based on projections that could change with end-of-year expenses. Pulling from the technology fund may also limit the school system's ability to pay for higher than projected maintenance costs for student devices next year.

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"Recurring funds are needed to support the implementation of the Blueprint, particularly the teacher salary goals," Martirano wrote to the school board in an April 27 memo. "It is not sustainable to implement the Blueprint with a large dependency on fund balance, especially as instructional services transition from federal grants to the operating budget."

The one-time funds would reduce the budget gap to approximately $44.3 million, the remainder of which would be covered by both scenarios' proposed expenditure reductions and additional county funding.

"Any further reductions beyond those presented in Scenario 2 will have a significant operational impact on the school system," Martirano told the board in a May 3 memo.

Neither scenario recommends increasing school class sizes, a tool the board has used in past years to help generate savings and avoid laying off staff, but without additional county funding Martirano said that "may become necessary."

The school board will schedule a work session the week of May 15 to adopt a budget balancing scenario ahead of the County Council's budget adoption on May 24.

Siddiqui said successful Blueprint implementation would ultimately rest on finding additional revenue sources in the coming years.

"In Howard County we'll have to have that conversation about revenues and how we increase revenues locally in order to meet the Blueprint requirements, not just for next year but really for the next 10 years," he said. "Because this requirement is here. It's not going away."