County Delegation Asks Kamenetz to Restore Teaching Positions

… They ask that funding be directed at retaining and hiring for the classroom …

By Liz Bowie, The Baltimore Sun

5:36 PM EDT, March 31, 2011

A group of Baltimore County delegates has written a letter to County Executive Kevin B. Kamenetz asking that he restore teaching positions the school system was planning to eliminate in July.

In the strongly worded letter, the delegates said that the proposal to eliminate nearly 200 positions is “an unacceptable way to ensure that we have quality education in our public schools.” They said that because they worked hard to add $13 million to the county school budget that had been left out of Gov. Martin O’Malley’s proposed budget for next year, they want “all additional funding in the budget [to] be directed at retaining and hiring teachers first.”

Of the delegation’s 21 members, 14 have signed the letter, including Del. John A. Olszewski, chair of the delegation, and Del. Stephen Lafferty, vice-chair. Legislators also criticized the failure of the school system to look at cutting administrators, managers and other staff who don’t work in the school buildings, saying that it did not strike them as the right priorities for the coming year.

Lafferty said in an interview that it is relatively rare, in his experience, for delegates to express a concern about the school system’s budget. But, he said, legislators felt strongly that the first cuts not be made to classrooms. “The county executive knows this is a serious situation. Just as we continue to recognize the importance of education, I think he and the County Council do too,” he said.

School Superintendent Joe A. Hairston proposed a budget, passed by the school board, which reduces the number of teaching positions by 196 through attrition. The reductions will be felt the most at high schools, where faculty positions are being cut by about 10 percent. Teachers say that class sizes will rise and Advanced Placement and elective courses with small numbers of students will be eliminated. The school system says AP classes will be eliminated only if there are none or a few students who want to take the class. Monday, students protested the teacher cuts in front of the courthouse in Towson.

The school system’s budget must be approved by Kamenetz and the County Council. While Kamenetz does not have the authority to force the school system to add the teaching positions, or to change line items in the budget, he can move funds from one large category in the school budget to another.

Kamenetz could decide to move money from the administration category in the school budget to the instruction salaries category. And the county executive also might find several million dollars in other areas of the county budget to help fund the positions. But even if Kamenetz makes any of these moves, Hairston does not have to restore the teaching positions.

Kamenetz will present his budget to the County Council on April 14, shortly after the Maryland General Assembly session is over. If the legislature approves the changes in the state budget as expected, the county schools would get about $6.8 million more than it had expected, or about half of the $12 million that would be needed to restore all of the teaching positions.

The county executive declined to comment on the letter or the school budget situation, because the state budget had not yet been passed, said Ellen Kobler, a spokeswoman for Kamenetz. But, she said, there may be other problems with the school budget that have to be considered. “It appears that there is significant underfunding of the health care costs for BCPS employees,” she said. County budget analysts are now trying to estimate how much might have to be added to the budget to fix the problem.

In addition, some legislative decisions that have yet to be made could affect the budget. Kamenetz, she said, “is waiting to see what is what until he speculates on what can be done for the school budget.”

Hairston had no comment on the letter.

“The school superintendent can ignore it but if he does, he does it at some peril,” said Donald F. Norris, professor of public policy at the University of Maryland Baltimore County. In the future, he said, the school system could pay a price because it needs the legislators to work for the system. “The delegation could put enormous pressure on the school board to change it,” Norris said.

County Councilwoman Vicki Almond said in a statement that she strongly supports the letter and hopes that there is an “evaluation of non-classroom personnel” by the school system to see if more money can be shifted to retain the teaching positions.

Copyright © 2011, The Baltimore Sun

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