Baltimore County Schools Superintendent Darryl Williams has proposed a $2.6 billion budget for the next fiscal year that he says advances equity and excellence for all students and attempts to eliminate disparities in academic achievement. But Baltimore County Executive Johnny Olszewski Jr. is already calling the spending plan “unrealistic.”

Williams, whose four-year contract ends June 30, presented the budget at a school board meeting Tuesday night.

While Williams stressed priorities such as paying for Advanced Placement exams and expanding community schools and the English Language Learners program, he also noted that, given the economy, the system will be in a tough place financially for the next two fiscal years due to high inflation.

The fiscal 2024 budget year begins July 1. Williams said that it will be the last fiscal year that the school system receives federal pandemic relief funding.

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Olszewski said in a statement that education is a top priority for his administration, which he said increased education spending more than any other in county history.

“Given recent enrollment declines, the budget request by BCPS is unrealistic and far exceeds increases offered to the system early in the budget process,” his statement read. “This budget does not reflect budget constraints, including adjusted state funding formulas and local spending affordability limits.”

He said he and his staff will carefully review the budget request and work with the County Council to pass a “responsible, sustainable budget that funds a first-class education within our budgetary reality,” said Olszewski, a Democrat who was recently reelected.

The budget states that 48% of its revenue, or $1.3 million, comes from the county.

Williams defended his spending plan.

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“We believe that strong investments in our students, staff and schools will pay dividends for our county’s future, even in uncertain economic times,” he said in a statement to The Banner. “This is just the beginning of the budget process, and we are committed to working closely with the Board of Education, County Executive and County Council to build an operating budget for BCPS that meets the needs of all students.”

Williams said Tuesday that the budget includes critical compensation enhancements for staff with the help of county partners. “However, those costs need to be funded in the FY24 budget,” Williams said.

In August, the school board voted unanimously to transfer $49.6 million from its fiscal 2023 fund balance to pay for a year of salary increases. The request came long after the school system had approved its budget for the current fiscal year and required a signoff from the County Council.

The transfer was a one-time move, however, and an ongoing funding source needed to be identified. Olszewski at the time called the move fiscally irresponsible.

At a September news conference, Williams and Olszewski announced a $76 million plan to give teachers what they wanted. They said $30 million would come from the school system’s surplus and the rest would come from one-time COVID relief funds. The county said it would not pick up the cost to fund the remaining years. The school system would have to trim its budget to afford the ongoing costs.

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The budget report states that the pay package costs $55.5 million.

The proposed operating budget’s general fund totals $1.9 billion, an increase of $102.8 million, or 5.7%, over the current fiscal year, according to the budget report.

The school system’s report also states that the county funded its operations at or near maintenance of effort, or MOE, between fiscal 2010 and fiscal 2014. Funding for the county started to rise above MOE over the next six years. By fiscal 2022, it was 3.5% above MOE, and in fiscal 2023, it was 3.2%. The proposed fiscal 2024 budget is 3.9% higher than it is in the current fiscal year.

The overall budget represents a 9.5% increase.

“The overall change is primarily driven by the general fund increase, $165.3 million for the capital budget, offset by a reduction of $44.8 million in the special revenue budget,” the report stated.

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Release of the budget comes less than two months after five newly elected board members took office. The reconfigured board then elected a new chair and vice chair.

Meanwhile, Williams faces a Feb. 1 deadline to tell the board whether he is interested in another four-year term. Some County Council members have expressed disappointment with his leadership in the past, while others are concerned that a change in leadership would be disruptive to students. The board would need to act soon if it wants to launch a search for a replacement for Williams, whose four-year contract set his annual salary at $290,000.

kristen.griffith@thebaltimorebanner.com

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