County Budget Pinch Puts Fiscal Squeeze On Schools

November 28, 1990|By Donna E. Boller | Donna E. Boller,Staff writer

County government officials may ask the school system for help in cutting expenses to cope with a projected income gap that could reach $18 million, but Superintendent Michael E. Hickey says the public schools don't have much money to spare.

Hickey said if a request for cuts in the 1990-1991 operating budget comes from County Executive-elect Charles I. Ecker, school officials will see if they can reduce non-personnel expenses and possibly put off filling non-teaching vacancies.

"It's not going to be possible to do very much because most of our budget is people, and those people are already hired. We're not going to lay people off. That's clear in my mind," Hickey said.

But Ecker said Tuesday that he doesn't think the county can continue to finance education as it has in the past, and that the school system will have to take its fair share of cuts.

The incoming county executive said he expects an amicable working relationship with the school board and does not anticipate a repeat of the situation under former County Executive Hugh J. Nichols, whose sharp cuts in the school budget were mostly restored by the County Council.

The county government, in fact, lacks the legal authority to order cuts in the $140.47 million allocation for public schools approved by the County Council last May as part of a $286.4 million county budget. The county's contribution represents 78 percent of the school system's $179.6 million budget for 1990-1991.

"The County Council and executive have the power to set the school budget for the next year, but once it is set, they can only negotiate," said David S. White, county government senior budget analyst.

Ecker earlier this month said that belt-tightening all around -- including in the schools -- would be the order of the day to deal with the projected shortfall, which was then expected to reach $3 to $5 million. He also said he expects smaller spending increases in the budget for 1991-1992.

Hickey's proposed operating budget for 1991-1992 is scheduled for release to the public Dec. 21. He said he expects to meet with Ecker shortly after the new county executive is sworn in Dec. 3.

The superintendent said he has not been asked to hold down the budget proposal, but he plans to keep the increase "as low as possible, even to the extent of limiting what I might have asked for in terms of new programs."

He estimated that it will take a 12 to 15 percent increase to cover projected enrollment increases and the 6 percent raise for teachers that is part of the three-year contract ratified in April.

The 15 percent figure did not include raises for secretaries and instructional assistants, who began contract talks earlier this month, nor an allocation for some form of seventh period in county high schools, a priority of the PTA Council of Howard County.

A straight seven-period day would cost an estimated $2.5 million. A lower-cost alternative, classes before and after school and on evenings and Saturdays, is estimated at approximately $1 million.

County school officials have begun to see the impact of slumping residential development in their capital budget, which draws part of its revenue from real estate transfer taxes.

In the first four months of the fiscal year that began July 1, transfer tax revenue is down 18.6 percent from the comparable period in 1989, said Joseph L. Williams, director of business affairs for the school system.

The school board must collect a total of $2.1 million in transfer taxes and interest income on that $2.1 million to meet its $35.9 million capital budget this year, a goal Williams said he believes can be met.

"I will have to do more projections, but I still think we're going to be all right on that $2 million we need," he said.

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