Bill Barnes, acting superintendent of the Howard County Public School System, has proposed the elimination of 348 staff positions as part of the “difficult decisions” that will need to be made to balance the system’s fiscal 2025 operating budget.

Although the proposed budget won’t be introduced until Jan. 18, Barnes provided the Board of Education with a preview on Jan. 11, in which he projected a $103 million funding gap.

“Our focus … has been to bring forward a balanced budget option now rather than waiting until the end of the budget cycle to engage in the emotionally charged and very difficult decision making process,” he said. “This allows the Board and staff more time to consider the realities that exist and ways to develop collaborative solutions.”

Barnes is also proposing to use the remainder of the school system’s $10.2 million in reserves and request $47 million in above maintenance of effort funding from the county, the same amount it provided in the last fiscal year.

“The total amount of reductions that will be proposed is $46.6 million,” Barnes said.

A number of factors are contributing to rising school expenditures, he noted, including the school system’s obligation to come up with $9 million to meet state mandates stipulated in the Blueprint for Maryland’s Future legislation. At the same time, student transportation costs have become increasingly challenging since the COVID-19 pandemic, and the system has also seen a significant post-pandemic rise in special education services that require an adjustment in school-based staffing.

Employee compensation is rising as well, and Barnes said the school system is expecting a 13.6% increase in health insurance costs alone.

“This is not a time to assign blame, it’s a fiscal reality,” he said, adding that the proposed budget will total $1.13 billion, representing a $25 million or 2.3% increase in expenditures above fiscal 2024.

“My January 18 presentation will detail recommendations to balance our spending and the funding we expect to receive,” Barnes said.