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Baltimore County Council punishes school system over late buses

Alex Starr/Flickr Creative Commons

Baltimore County Council members' frustration with the school system about late buses boiled over Monday night. The council used its power to stop a requested transfer of money within the school system it saved on salaries due to vacancies to punish school officials.

Late school buses is the issue Cathy Bevins said she hears more complaints about than anything except the coronavirus.

“We need to send a message to the school system,” the Democratic councilwoman said. “To the superintendent. This is not working for me. It’s not working for me and it’s not working for my parents.”

Republican Councilman David Marks said at Perry Hall Middle School on Monday, 10 buses were late. Some buses arrived 90 minutes late.

“That’s just unacceptable,” Marks said.

The school system has $33 million in money unspent on teaching, transportation and special education salaries because of vacancies. School officials want to spend the money elsewhere. After a split 5-2 vote, the council refused to let them do that.

School officials have been grappling with a shortage of school bus drivers. They have pointed out that school systems nationwide are having the same problem.

But council members Monday were not satisfied with that answer.

“I’m so, so, so, so tired of hearing ‘well, everybody else has this problem, so let’s just give Baltimore County Public Schools a pass on it,’” Democratic Councilman Tom Quirk said.

Council members also lambasted School Superintendent Darryl Williams and his administration for not being in touch about what they are doing to get a handle on the bus situation.

“The buck is not stopping with the superintendent right now,” Quirk said. “That’s very frustrating to me, as not only a councilman, but as a parent that has a daughter in public schools, as a citizen and as a taxpayer.”

Republican Councilman Wade Kach said, “Something is wrong and I get so tired of hearing that the administrative staff, the senior staff, is looking into this. These problems have existed for a long time.”

Chris Hartlove, the chief financial officer for the Baltimore County Public Schools, told council members that the school administration is aware of their frustration.

“We have those same frustrations, and I do see folks working on trying to fix these problems,” said Hartlove.

Hartlove told the council he informed Superintendent Williams about the frustration over late buses he heard from council members at a meeting last week.

Councilwoman Bevins wondered if that was the case, why Williams didn’t pick up the phone.

“My colleagues, all raise your hand if you heard from the superintendent,” Bevins said. “Anybody get a call from the superintendent?”

When no one raised their hand or spoke up Bevins said, “That’s our point.”

Democratic Council Chairman Julian Jones said everyone is frustrated. He tried unsuccessfully to convince his fellow council members to not use the money as a weapon.

“Let us not use the funding to send a message when the message has already been sent and it’s loud and clear,” Jones said.

Council members also took the opportunity to fume about other things, like the shortage of teachers, and educators having to buy school supplies out of their pockets.

The County Council in May approved this coming year’s budget, which includes more than $2 billion for the county schools. But once the budget is approved, the council has little say over how the money is spent. The only reason it could block the transfer of money Monday night is because the amount reached a threshold in which the school system needed to ask permission.

For years, council members have been frustrated about handing over so much money with little say on how it is spent.

Councilman Quirk said, We appropriate so much money to Baltimore County Public Schools and I don’t think a member on the County Council feels like we have any accountability.”

The school system gets to keep the $33 million that the council blocked from being transferred. School officials say they will have to come back to the county council for approval on how to spend it.

John Lee is a reporter for WYPR covering Baltimore County. @JohnWesleyLee2
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