Howard County students conduct a biological assessment of a stream at the Howard County Conservancy. (Photo: HCPSS/Howard County Conservancy)

The Howard County Conservancy estimates that other counties spend an average of $1.7 million annually on environmental educators compared with the $100,000 budgeted by the Howard County Public School System.

And while some other counties provide robust environmental programming with dedicated facilities and staff, Howard County could lose its only environmental educator if the Board of Education accepts proposed cuts to help plug a $98.6 million shortfall in fiscal 2025 funding.

Declining revenues, lower enrollment, and spending increases mandated by the Blueprint for Maryland’s Future are contributing to this year’s budget headaches.

“We faced the elimination of this position nine months ago, and we’re here again,” said Meg Boyd, executive director of the Conservancy, which hosts HCPSS’s environmental programs and educator. “If this position is cut, the whole program goes away and we are in uncharted territory with the state’s environmental education mandate.”

According to the fiscal 2025 operating budget proposed by acting Superintendent Bill Barnes, cutting the environmental teaching position and one other science teaching position at the central office would save the school system a total of $206,922.

Meager funding

Budgeted funding from HCPSS supports environmental programs like the Watershed Report Card, now in its 10th year.

“We’ve reached 50,000 students through this program,” Boyd said.

This year, she noted, Prince George’s County invested $2.6 million in its environmental education programs and also obligated $15 million in capital to expand the school system’s Schmidt Center environmental facility.

Over the past five years, Boyd said the Conservancy’s programs brought $1.2 million in grants to Howard County.

“Every one of these grants asks for a letter of support from the school system so they know the programming is committed and supporting this education,” she said. “If this program and partnership goes away, the limited funding that comes into our county for this education is at great risk.”

What’s lost

Ann Strozyk, the HCPSS environmental educator, helps provide professional development for teachers in grades 6-12, has planned a June 2024 teacher field trip to Smith Island with the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, and is piloting a new 9th grade Earth Science Climate field trip in May, pending the award of a Chesapeake Bay Trust grant.

The 6th grade Climate kNOWledge program she leads is in all 20 Howard County middle schools and has reached 8,000 students over the past three years.

Strozyk also runs the Youth Climate Institute, a three-year extracurricular program that certifies students as YCI Ambassadors.

“Students learn the fundamentals of climate science, how to be an effective communicator, and study local issues in their communities,” she said. “It provides a network for students with other young leaders and professionals long past graduation.”

The YCI idea has now expanded across the state and is also active in Alabama and Ohio, boasting 26 chapters at last count.

“Our high school level programs allow students to meet the state-mandated environmental literacy graduation requirement,” Strozyk said, adding that their loss would also mean less access to green internships and jobs within the county for students.

At least seven previous high school graduates exposed to the Conservancy’s environmental programs are now studying environmental science in universities across the nation, Strozyk said.

Colin Wang, who studies biology at William & Mary, said he spent his last semester focused on case studies of environmental policy success and failure.

“I’ve gotten involved in one of the conservation biology research labs on campus, so I think back to my Youth Climate Institute experiences often,” he said. “YCI lives on in my memory and passion for learning and conservation.”

YCI has reached 600 students since it began in September 2020, while the Conservancy’s environmental education programming has reached more than 100,000 students during the past 18 years.

Conflicting mandates

At the Feb. 12 hybrid meeting between the BOE and the Howard County Council, BOE Chair Jen Mallo said the cuts in the superintendent’s budget proposal are not yet a certainty.

“We have three additional public hearings scheduled, and three more budget work sessions,” she said. “The Board may elect to present a balanced budget in a slightly different way, and we are considering different options.”

Howard County Councilwoman Christiana Rigby, who represents District 3, acknowledged that the state has been “quite prescriptive” in defining its education priorities in Maryland, which is a major factor driving the budget problem.

“They are calling out pre-K, career and college and technical education, and special education,” Rigby said, but staffing is a universal issue.

“We are lacking teachers, both in our county and the state,” she said. “If we don’t start creating teachers, we will be in a worse position five years from now.”

While the Blueprint does constitute a mandate, Boyd said there is also another mandate for environmental literacy in Maryland.

“They’re pushing one mandate aside for another one,” she said. “The report on how Howard County meets the environmental education graduation requirement is due to the Maryland State Department of Education in 2025 and they have to answer to this. What happens if the program is cut? That’s the uncharted territory we’re going to be grappling with.”