Harford County Executive Bob Caselli announced the proposed budget for fiscal year 2024 last week, which included a $39 million cut to the proposed operating budget for Harford County Public Schools.
In a press release, Caselli outlined his recommended budget after an in-depth review of the county’s operations and spending. The county’s $1.1 billion budget is lower than this year’s and does not raise tax rates, while making unprecedented investments in public safety and contributing to the full funding of Harford County Public Schools, the statement said.
“I have met with the budget team every day for the past four months and reviewed in detail county spending and operations to ensure we act responsibly as good stewards of taxpayer money,” Caselli said in the statement. “Like other Maryland counties and families, we, too, face a very uncertain economic future and steep cost increases from unfunded states. I haven’t raised taxes like other Maryland counties have, but we must work now to restore fiscal responsibility while maintaining essential services.”
Caselli continued, “My budget reduces our structural deficit, dramatically increases funding for my top priority, public safety, and providing educational funding in the amount required by the state. I encourage the Harford County Board of Education to take a close look at their budget and processes for finding efficiencies, especially in salaries.” However, they will be able to fund their entire budget using a combination of county and state funds, and a portion of the $92 million in unspent taxpayer dollars they collected from previous years of overfunding.”
However, the Harford County Public Schools issued a press release Tuesday that called Caselli’s budget a “worst-case scenario” and challenged some of Caselli’s claims. At a Board of Education meeting Monday, Superintendent Sean Paulson said Caselli was “mortgaging” students’ futures for “political greatness.”
“He doesn’t care about education in Harford County,” Paulson said. “I certainly hope Mr. Caselli has underestimated the value our society places on education. In his video, Mr. Caselli said “My budget for fiscal year 2020 continues the county’s commitment to a higher quality education for our children to provide the county’s full share of funding as required by state law.” The statement in and of itself sounds fine, but the challenge is that it would have been easier to understand and frankly more accurate if he had said that his proposal provided the minimum allowable amount of funding required by law.”
Paulson was referring to the remarks made by Caselli in a Video on the boycott’s YouTube channel It was published on the same day that Caselli explained his budget priorities.
This is the first time in decades that the school system’s budget has received such a significant cut, according to the HCPS release. The proposed budget is $19.4 million less than this year’s budget and $39 million less than the Board of Education required for fiscal year 2024. That equates to a spending cut of $1,000 per student, according to the HCPS statement.
According to Caselli’s proposed budget, Harford County Public Schools will receive $305 million in operating funds as well as funding for school development, including: $20 million for Harford Technical High School; $17 million for Aberdeen Middle School; and $16 million to plan a new compound elementary school and Harford Academy, which serves special education students. school board required $344 million from domestic funds.
Harford County Public Schools has proposed an increase of $51.1 million over this year’s budget, including a $19.1 million increase in funding for teacher salaries. Without that money, Paulson said a lower salary package would limit the district’s ability to stay competitive with other school systems in the area to attract and retain teachers.
“In fact, our biggest competitor is Baltimore County for employment,” Paulson said. “They have made a huge difference, and this year their teacher salary package will see an increase.”
Paulson also addressed allegations made by Caselli about the amount of money that goes into the Harford County Public Schools central office, claiming that most employees work remotely and that the school system has an available financial balance of $92 million.
Roughly 25 employees are working 100% remotely, allowing Harford County Public Schools to avoid having to rent office space to house those employees, according to the HCPS news release. Administrative positions account for only 3% of the total budget, totaling $21 million.
Harford County Public Schools has a healthy financial balance, the statement said. However, the school system does not have $92 million available to spend. A lot of the money Caselli is referring to is for expenditures based on this year’s budget but hasn’t been spent yet. The schools’ statement stated that the balance of the unallocated fund is approximately $36 million.
“With that said, we’ve done a lot of work in the last few years,” Paulson said. “For 11 years, ending with the fiscal year 2020 budget, we have cut jobs in this school system in order to balance our budget. Therefore, we have started each school year with fewer staff than the previous year.”
When schools returned to in-person learning from the COVID-19 lockdown, 94% of the positions hired were student positions, according to Paulson. The school system plans to move these jobs from the federal stimulus funds to the operating budget. However, with the budget cut, teachers’ jobs and the resources funded by the stimulus will be at risk after the next school year.
“My biggest concern is that this has not been the year of crisis,” Paulson said. All of these federal funds will expire next year, and we’ve got jobs on our operating balance sheet that we’re waiting to move. We can use some of that [federal funding] To take us through this year. I am very concerned about what we will look forward to next year.”
Without a significant increase in funding, Harford County Public Schools would see more classrooms, athletic participation fees would not be waived, and teachers’ salaries would not be competitive with neighboring districts, according to the HCPS release.
“County Executive Bob Caselli is showing that he does not care about the children of Harford County, and instead plans to use them as pawns in his political game,” the HCPS statement read. “As things stand now, the budget will make it near impossible for HCPS to continue to attract the best possible recruits to work in our schools and to continue to support the outstanding teachers who are already working for our students.”
Board of Education members expressed disappointment about the budget.
“My heart is sad,” said board member Joyce Herold. “As we already know, we’re facing severe budget cuts for our kids and our budget should have been fully funded. It felt like we learned our lesson during COVID as we find ourselves in a very sad corner after decades of not getting fully funded. I’m grieving for my kids, for all of our kids, and this It’s not enough. They deserve better. We proposed a budget and didn’t ask for all the money we needed. We asked for money to get the job done to the best of our ability while keeping other priorities in mind.”
Board member Denise Perry agreed with Herold, saying she hoped the school system would convince the district to fully fund the schools.
“I would look at this as more important than anything else,” Perry said.
Board of Education Vice President Wade Sewell called the proposed budget a “bloodbath”.
“No other county executive has cut the demand for the school system to this degree,” Sewell said. “Let’s be clear, the portion of the budget we’ve asked the county has already been cut from what we want to invest in the next school year. Notice I used ‘invest.’ Harford County Public Schools already runs the tightest financial ship in the entire state.”
Sewell continued, “In the year immediately leading up to the pandemic, HCPS got the job done the least amount of any county in the state. Our students usually did middle, if not top half, performance, and yet we had the lowest amount of money.”
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Kristi Crawford-Smick, president of the Harford County Education Association, said the budget cut was “shameful.”
“The political theater that’s being played in Harford County right now is a shame,” said Crawford Thicke. Harford County Public Schools has more than 5,100 employees, most of whom also live in this county. They have invested in their schools and students, but their county superintendent is unwilling to invest in them. The $39 million budget shortfall will affect every school and community. Cuts in staff and programs will remain painful for years to come. When you consider that every 12 teachers cost close to $1 million, it wouldn’t take a math genius to see how devastating this would be. It could take decades for us to recover. We’re probably looking at hundreds of staff cuts. At a time when our neighbors in Baltimore County are making a record investment in their schools, Mr. Caselli is showing his ignorance. I will not blame any HCPS teachers who leave to go to Baltimore County because not only will they not get a huge pay raise, they will not be respected by county executives who display such reprehensible behavior.”
Crawford-Smick continued, “Our community has proven time and time again that it values the quality of our public schools. By providing only the minimum amount of funding required by law, the county executive is showing us that it does not value public education or teachers. We don’t have a minimum number of students, We have no minimum teachers, and this community deserves more than minimal funding. It’s time for Mr. Caselli to stop playing games with our children’s futures and adjust his budget.”
Jake Zeppeli is a former Cecil County Teacher of the Year who currently teaches government at Aberdeen High School. A native of Harford County, Zebely left the Cecil County Public Schools after 14 years to teach in Harford County. However, he is second guessing his decision after Caselli’s proposed budget cut.
The former county executive explained that education is a priority, and that teachers are valued in the community. “I made a very bold move last year to come back,” Zeppeli said. “When the county teacher of the year decides to leave that county to transfer to another county, that’s a statement. What the current county executive did made me second guess in my decision to go home because what he said with his budget proposal was that he didn’t value public education.”
Zebeli continued: “What you are telling me as a teacher is that he does not appreciate my contribution to society. What that means to my students is that they will not receive the individual attention and instruction they deserve. Public education is one of the great pillars of America.”
Harford County Council, which received Caselli’s proposed fiscal budget for 2024, is holding budget working sessions with county departments from Wednesday through Tuesday, April 25. The council has scheduled public hearings on the budget for May 4 and May 10.