Baltimore County Public Schools employees will get salary increases this year under a $76 million plan announced Tuesday by county and schools leaders. But the plan will come with a significant cost to the school system, which will have to find a way to trim next year’s budget by $19 million to continue to pay for the raises.

The county has said it will not pick up that cost for the following year’s budget.

Of the $76 million, about $30 million will come from a school budget surplus from the fiscal year that ended June 30 and another $46 million from one-time federal COVID-relief funds.

‘A win in the right direction’

Superintendent Darryl Williams and County Executive Johnny Olszewski Jr. held a news conference Tuesday at West Towson Elementary to announce the compromise.

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“It’s not the full package, but I always say to Team BCPS, these are wins,” Williams said. “It’s a small win, but it’s a win in the right direction.”

Olszewski, a Democrat who had sharply criticized the board’s original proposal to pay for raises because it committed the county to $138 million over the course of five years, is allowing the school system to draw down surplus funds this year. The county executive will only have to come up with an additional $13 million next fiscal year.

Williams said employees will get a 3% cost-of-living raise, mid-year step increases and a retention bonus for every employee, with additional bonuses for employees who have been in the job for 30 years. The school system will use $13 million in surplus funds to pay for the cost-of-living increase for the first half of fiscal 2023, which began July 1. The rest was already in the fiscal 2023 budget. Another $19 million for salary step increases for all staff will be paid for by the existing surplus. The school system will have to cut its fiscal 2024 budget to pay for that later.

Teachers union advocacy

Federal funds will be used for bonuses for this year, but they will not be a recurring expense moving forward.

“This is not what we originally asked for,” Cindy Sexton, president of the Teachers Association of Baltimore County, said at the news conference. “But through the advocacy of our members, we have more than doubled the initial offer that was on the table.”

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She was referring to the cost-of-living increase, calling it a “small win.” The teachers union, which delayed its vote to ratify the negotiated contract agreement, said members will meet Thursday and Sexton said she expects ratification by Friday.

Julie Henn, the school board chair, said the board fully supports the plan and will continue to work with Williams to “identify additional ways to recognize the efforts and contributions of all BCPS staff.”

County Council Chair Julian Jones said the council also supports the spending plan. It will give staff “the compensation they truly deserve. And we would love to give more.” What he likes about today, he said, is that everyone came together to give what they could while remaining fiscally responsible.

‘Not typical budgeting practice’

“This is not typical budgeting practice,” Olszewski said after the news conference, but called the plan “fiscally sustainable.” The county will return to a normal budgeting process moving forward, he said.

In August, county school board members 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 fiscal year 2023 budget and required a sign-off from the County Council.

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However, the transfer was a one-time move and an ongoing funding source needed to be identified. Olszewski then called the move fiscally irresponsible, contending that funding the higher salaries would cost half a billion dollars over five years. He told school officials to find a way to pay for the salary hikes themselves, though he agreed to use $14 million to fund a full-year cost-of-living adjustment for school employees that would take effect immediately.

The school system’s 2021 efficiencies review recommends almost no spending reductions, although it does suggest eliminating contracted maintenance, evaluating whether fleet maintenance costs could be cut and reorganizing several departments.

The county and the school system have reported different figures for the raises. While Olszewski initially said the raises would cost $505 million over five years, Chris Hartlove, the school system’s chief financial officer, told The Baltimore Banner it would cost $175 million.

‘We lost 1,000 teachers’

School board member Lily Rowe, however, told The Banner before the announcement that the school system didn’t need money from the county government at all.

“We can pay for this ourselves,” she said in an email earlier this month. “We are not asking for more money from the county. We are asking to spend what we already have.”

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She had said the school system’s annual surplus was enough to fund the raises over five years, citing a May budget analysis report as proof.

“We lost 1,000 teachers last year and we are going to lose more this year and every year after that until we do this,” she said.

However, after she was told the school system’s CFO confirmed the requested millions from the county, Rowe said, “I think it’s more accurate to say county officials do not all agree and are presenting conflicting information.”

In a draft plan that Williams sent Olszewski at the beginning of the month, he still requested the county provide $138 million more over five years. He also proposed $16 million in cuts to school spending, using money from the district’s fund balance, state funding and federal dollars.

For the budget year beginning July 1, 2024, for example, he will need an additional $113 million. That would pay for extending the school day by 15 minutes, increasing pay for substitutes and temporary employees, and funding 131.5 full-time paraeducators to help students with math and reading.

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Williams also planned to use $205 million of the system’s fund balance between the current budget year and fiscal 2027, and $36 million of COVID funds during the current fiscal year. The school system would save $16 million from fiscal 2014 by reducing central office positions, auto stipends, implementing a revised cellphone stipend policy, reducing mileage reimbursement, and eliminating other operating-budget-funded initiatives.

A show of unity, Williams’ leadership

Tuesday morning’s show of unity between the school system and county government comes after members of the County Council last spring criticized Williams’ leadership and called for school board members to look for another superintendent. Soon after, board members held a special closed-session meeting to discuss a personnel matter; Williams remained in his position.

Williams told The Banner in an August interview that the question of renewing his contract, which expires at the end of the school year, is a conversation he has to have with the school board. However, a nearly brand-new school board will take over after the November elections and when a new governor appoints members early next year.

Baltimore Banner reporters Liz Bowie and Taylor DeVille contributed to this report.

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