Budge It... Fudge it...
As you may have seen, Superintendent Foose asked for a massive increase in the School Budget, which already receives 60% of the Howard County budget. I support, as do most others, fully funding all the necessary expenses needed to run our stellar school system (which will remain stellar due to the change in the Board of Education members from the Primary Election, but that's for another post). For now, the Council is reviewing the Executive's budget for the HCPSS, and will vote soon on whether or not to pass it. All this raises the question of what expenses are actually "necessary"? This is the question facing the Council, as CE Kittleman feels there is a lot of fat that can be cut from the School System's numbers. HCPSS argues that these "cuts" will have draconian impacts, like furloughs for teachers, and larger class sizes. Hold on a minute! These spurious claims sounds like nothing more than scare tactics to me. Let's take a closer look.
Kittleman's budget fully funded teacher salaries, so why are furloughs threatened? Other fully-funded categories were Instruction and Special Education, so why the need for larger class sizes? Well, that's because you have to have big scary talk in order to place attention away from where the HCPSS really wants to spend your money. Hidden inside these categories is a slush fund that has been moved around and reportedly used for perks, attorney costs, funding sole bid contracts seemingly for friends or cohorts, and PR costs to make it all look good. In an effort to curb this wastefulness, Kittleman suggested putting categories - a directed funding of sorts - into the budget bill. The biggest change he wants is in the Fixed Charges category. Let's see what that means.
The Fixed Charges category mostly contains Self-Funded Healthcare, and that would seem to be a place where cuts would be bad, but not necessarily. The binder containing the 2017 proposed budget is about 8 inches thick. Do some digging and you can see, adding historical information, that the Health Fund (in "Fixed Charges"), has had some interesting play. The following numbers show the projection of what the ENDING balance would be for the budget year, versus the next number, which is the ACTUAL account balance at the end of each year:
2011 Projected Balance $0; Actual Balance $21,642.934 (off by $21M)
2012 Projected Balance $166,640; Actual Balance $16,342.109 (off by $16M),
2013 Projected Balance $3,964,674; Actual Balance $12,527,992 (off by $8M)
2014 Projected Balance (NEGATIVE) $9,635,526; Actual Balance (POSITIVE) $13,031.658 (off by $23M).
Currently, the estimate for 2016 is Negative $15 Million. Are we supposed to BELIEVE this number after the history seen above? So, you may ask, what happened with the leftover money? Was it refunded to those who pay into it? Nope. (This is according to HCEA, who has an extreme motive for not wanting anything to hurt their benefits, and thus, this is amazingly helpful and credible information).
NOTE: in FY14 anticipating the negative balance, more money was given by the General Fund, but not returned when the negativity didn't materialize, because once funds are marked for Health and Dental they cannot be returned. You can see the pattern that over-estimating the need for funds in this category gets them more money from the General Fund. You can see the trend, and it is maddening and wrong. HCPSS claims reductions here are cutting employee benefits, and that claim is bogus.
For this year, the HCPSS has already put in their request to move more money into this category - business as usual - with current Council Resolution 60-2016. They are NOW asking for over $7 MILLION MORE in this category, because they PROJECTED a loss of $1.6 Million for 2015. But as the trend goes, they ended up with a positive balance of millions. There is NO legal requirement to carry this amount of reserves.
So, don't fall for it, and if you get a survey from Foose asking where things should be cut, you won't see a list including her photographer, her lawyer, their trips, their no-bid contracts, or their PR costs as choices to cut, even though they promised "everything" would be on the table. You will be asked to cut teacher's healthcare, but it won't be asked like this, "Should we continue to drastically over-estimate what we need for teachers' healthcare, which is more than fully-funded, and thus get more General Fund money that way?" Oh, and if you find the survey a ridiculous PR stunt, and try to report it as abuse, they have already removed that button. This is their attempt at transparency and input. Looks like the message sent at the polls hasn't quite sunk in yet. If you want real input, send your concerns via email, to the Council at CouncilMail@HowardCountyMD.gov Thanks!