As Howard County’s school board works to close a $103.8 million budget gap, members of the school community have spoken out against a fairly small number of proposed cuts that total roughly $2.3 million.

At a school board public hearing last week, residents pushed back on proposals to defund third grade orchestra, eliminate an environmental educator position and reduce Gifted and Talented offerings to elementary schoolers. They hope to fend off cuts to these programs as the Board of Education begins working through a spending plan recommended by Bill Barnes, the acting superintendent.

Barnes recently proposed a $1.13 billion budget that will fund legal mandates tied to the Blueprint for Maryland’s Future, including all-day prekindergarten expansion, while also tackling school system funding priorities such as pay raises and the addition of 52 new special education positions.

However, his proposed budget includes a $103.8 million budget shortfall. To eliminate that, Barnes proposed making $46.6 million in spending cuts, asking the county government for an additional $47 million and drawing $10.2 million from available cash.

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Barnes, who was thrust into his job when Superintendent Michael Martirano retired Jan. 10, is no stranger to the budget process. In his 16 years with the school system, he has testified before the school board annually about the budget.

“Taking ownership of decisions isn’t new, [but] being the face of the budget is,” Barnes said in an interview with The Baltimore Banner.

Asked about potential pushback from residents, Barnes said “It’s an essential part [of the budget process] to have the back and forth. I understand and respect the process.”

“We are faced with cutting important programs and positions,” Barnes continued. “My priority is to make sure that any funds that become available are targeted to support schools and the most students and school staff as possible.”

Here’s a look at three areas that were the focus of testimony last week by residents, educators and others.

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Removing third grade orchestra

Many parents, students and county orchestra teachers spoke out against a proposal to eliminate the third grade strings program. The system would save $795,600 by eliminating a dozen instrumental music teaching positions, meaning that strings instruction wouldn’t become available to students until the fourth grade.

One speaker, June Pompei, recalled that the last time she stood in the school board room, she was being honored as a 2023 Music Educator of the Year. She remembered being so proud and humbled by the recognition, because the county “not only believed in, but championed and valued the importance of music education on all levels.”

Now retired, Pompei, who taught in the county for 40 years, voiced concern about the proposal to scale back music education. She said she felt like she was “in the middle of a bad recurring dream.”

“One year may not seem like a long time, but it will be an eternity to those students who have been waiting to be old enough to play an instrument and especially to those that cannot afford to start any earlier,” Pompei said during Thursday’s public hearing.

“More importantly this would result in the widening of the inequality gap of education in this county,” Pompei added, noting that many students don’t have the resources for private music lessons.

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Ginger Segala, chair of the Howard County Parents for School Music coalition, argued against any cuts to music programs. The coalition has 1,855 members.

When Harper Ports was in second grade, she was so excited that she would soon be playing a string instrument.

“I feel happy when I play my viola,” the current third grader said. “Would you want these feelings or that opportunity taken from your kids? The answer is no.”

Environmental educator position

Some residents, teachers and students are hoping the school board will avoid eliminating the Howard County Conservancy teaching position. Cutting the conservancy position and a science resource teacher would save the school system $206,922.

The Howard County Conservancy, a nonprofit land trust that educates people of all ages about nature, has had a partnership with the school system since 2003, according to the group’s website.

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Gail Holm, a volunteer with the school system’s environmental programs, expressed shock and dismay over the proposal to eliminate an environmental educator. She spoke of the joy she feels when working as a volunteer with students as they make observations and collect data in streams or on a trail.

“I believe a strong background in environmental knowledge for all our students is critical for their future and the future of our planet. We can’t afford to turn our backs on the existential challenge facing us,” Holm testified.

Stephanie Doodigian, a science instructional team leader at Oakland Mills High School, said the environmental educator has opened students’ eyes to environmental studies. Over the last five years, the conservancy has supported $1.2 million in grants to support science education.

Doodigian read aloud student comments during her testimony, including one from a student who thanked Ann Strozyk, who holds the conservancy teaching position. On behalf of the student, Doodigian read: “Thank you, Ms. Strozyk for helping me to think about how I can help my community. I am now volunteering with Howard EcoWorks.”

Scaling back Gifted and Talented Program

Eliminating 20 elementary-level Gifted and Talented Program teaching positions would save $1.3 million, according to the superintendent’s budget proposal. If approved, the cuts would reduce gifted and talented instructional seminars and second grade curriculum extension units in the elementary schools.

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Instructional seminars are enrichment opportunities where teachers provide advanced-level instruction to enhance skills such as critical thinking, research, technology and more. Seminar offerings vary by school. Currently, curriculum extension units are available for those from second through fifth grade in the areas of science and social studies. These units expand upon grade-level curriculum.

Leyna Zhou, a fourth grader at Hammond Elementary School, participates in gifted and talented programs. If the cuts are approved ,Lenya said, her peers will not have the same opportunities as she had “to be properly challenged and engaged by their classes.”

Sarah Ports became concerned when her oldest daughter complained about being bored in school. Her daughter was then able to join gifted and talented seminars and her outlook on school changed.

“She was able to challenge herself with her peers and the enthusiasm in her voice when she talked about these seminars was exciting and hopeful,” Ports said in asking the school board to reject this proposed budget cut. Ports’ youngest daughter is starting kindergarten next fall and she wants her to have the same opportunities, or even better ones, than her oldest child.

During the 2022-2023 academic year, 66% of those in kindergarten through the fifth grade participated in the Gifted and Talented Program.

At Dayton Oaks Elementary, roughly 30% of those in grades 2 to 5 participate in a science or social studies extension unit, according to Sonya Billey, a gifted and talented resource teacher at the school.

“That’s roughly 150 of our 505 student enrollment in those grades,” Billey said, emphasizing that the Gifted and Talented Program “helps set our school system apart from others.”

The school board has scheduled budget work sessions and public hearings leading up to the adoption of the budget, which is set for Feb. 29.