Howard County Executive Ball amends proposed budget, giving more to schools and delaying police body camera program

May 18—Howard County Executive Calvin Ball sent a letter to the Board of Education on Monday proposing reallocation of money in his proposed fiscal 2022 budget to give an additional $4 million to the Howard County Public School System.

As a result of giving more money to the school system, Ball is proposing a roughly yearlong delay in the implementation of the police department's body-worn camera program, defunding staffing vacancies in the county and restructuring costs associated with the opening of the new courthouse.

"I thank Dr. Ball for his proposal with the additional $4 million," Board of Education Chair Chao Wu wrote in an email. "We are looking forward to our continuous collaboration."

The adjustment by Ball comes after several weeks of talks between the school system, the Board of Education and the county government regarding funding for the 77-school system. One of the main discussions has been about maintenance of effort, a state formula that dictates the minimum amount of money the county must provide to the school system.

Due to the coronavirus pandemic and the fluctuating enrollments of school systems across Maryland, the state legislature passed a bill earlier this year to not hold districts accountable for enrollment declines this academic year. That means the original projection for maintenance of effort based on the school system's decreased 2020-21 enrollment is about $18 million less than the expected figure of $620.3 million, which is calculated based on the district's enrollment in 2019-20 and is the same amount of money the county provided to the school system in fiscal 2021.

The Maryland State Department of Education is expected to release the official fiscal 2022 maintenance of effort figures in the coming days.

Jahantab Siddiqui, the school system's chief administrative officer, said Monday that enrollment declines caused by virtual learning amid the pandemic caused some confusion during the budget process.

"This is a different year for us," Siddiqui said. "Typically, we would've known the [maintenance of effort] and how much in state aid we'd be getting back in September, and that would've informed our budget planning. With the enrollment decline, we appreciate that the governor and the legislature has done everything possible to hold districts harmless. But what that's led to is still unanswered questions that we're waiting for official confirmation on so we can figure out what the rest of the budget looks like."

Ball's announcement came about six hours into the County Council's public hearing Monday, coincidentally right before the police department, the state's attorney's office and sheriff's office were set to discuss the body-worn camera program, one of the three cuts being proposed for the increase in school system funding.

During the hearing, Police Chief Lisa Myers said the removal of funds for the body-worn camera program would push the implementation date of the program from July 2021 to May 2022.

The specifics of how Ball's amendment would affect the implementation of the body-worn camera program were unclear, as of Monday.

In April, the county executive presented his $1.88 billion operating budget for the upcoming fiscal year, $100 million more than last fiscal year's proposal. The budget included $632.8 million for the school system — $622.8 million for fiscal 2022 and a $10 million payment toward the school system's health and dental fund deficit.

Ball's proposal for the school district's operating budget was an increase of $12.5 million — or about 2% — compared with last year's approved budget but was $37.6 million less than what the school board requested in February. However, taking away the $10 million in one-time funds for the health fund deficit, the increase was only $2.5 million more.

Now, Ball's proposed budget allocates $626.8 million to the school system, $6.5 million more than last year.

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Ball wrote in the letter that the $4 million increase would go toward fully funding the school board's requests for salary and benefit increases for employees and adding special education positions. However, the final decision in how the school system spends the money it receives from the county lies with the Board of Education.

With the district receiving less than it requested, some of the initiatives — like the $6.2 million Digital Education Center — could be removed from the budget before final adoption. In his letter, though, Ball suggested that the school system use money from its $13.1 million fund balance to add or keep services in the budget. Ball also included a chart in his letter with figures that show other school systems in Central Maryland using fund balance money in their budgets.

"School systems across the region are utilizing a significant amount of fund balance in their proposed school budgets," Ball wrote. "We are asking that you consider taking similar action and use your fund balance to support our educators and children in the currently proposed budget as has been done in previous budgets."

In the past two fiscal years, the school system has applied $8 million and $12 million of fund balance money for its budgets, respectively.

"Ultimately, that decision typically has been made by the [school] board at the recommendation of the superintendent when the board is at the final stages of adopting the budget," Siddiqui said.

The County Council and the administration has until Wednesday to submit amendments to the budget. The council is set to adopt the budget May 26, and the Board of Education is schedule to approve the school system's budget May 27.