The county school system is $8 million in the red, and school officials say County Council members ought to share the blame for the deficit and take responsibility for a bailout.
But county officials have warned school Superintendent Larry L. Lorton that the county is faced with its own budget crises and that school officials are on their own.
"We were told that they won't be able to offer much help," school budget officer Jack White said yesterday. "We knew several weeks ago that we had a problem. Our contention is that they have some ownership for this problem, and they agreed. But they can't do anything about it."
White attributes the $8 million deficit to high energy costs created by the Persian Gulf crisis, causing the school system to spend $2 million more than budgeted. He said fuel rates were 62 cents per gallon when the budget was drafted last spring, but school officials are still trying to find acceptable fuel bids, which range from $1.09 to $1.25 a gallon.
Another $1 million is blamed on state laws requiring county schools to pay tuition and some transportation costs for school-age residents with special education needs that cannot be met in county schools. The school system has had to pick up the tab for special schools as far away as Rhode Island and North Carolina.
But White and other school board members are having a more difficult time dealing with a reported $5 million deficit for salaries.
"They (County Council members) guessed too low on their estimate for salary increases," White said. "It's part of the game-playing every year, but in the past we have had additional revenues that we were able to use in a fourth quarter transfer. This year we have no additional revenues to bail ourselves out.
"It never has been this bad before. The problem is the county government has its own problems."
However, county budget analyst Charlie Richardson is doubtful that the deficit will be as high as school officials are projecting, once all available resources are used from the school budget.
"Before we accept that there is $5 million deficit in salaries, we will need to see more backup information from the school system," Richardson said. "To say the county underestimated salaries is not true."
Richardson agreed with White's estimates for additional energy and special education costs, but said he does not believe the final figure for salaries will be $5 million over budget.
He said the problem may be even worse, including $600,000 in overspending in salaries for administrative employees.
"It's possible that they will have the revenue to address some portion the problem," Richardson said, citing reimbursements including $1 million for educating students who live on military bases and $1 million surplus from last year's budget.
"The problem is that they (the board) over-hired. That is a contributing factor," he said. "They have indicated that they plan to end the year with a balanced budget. We believe that through their own revenues and measures they take, they will be able to be in balance."
School officials are awaiting a meeting with county officials and are admittedly anxious about working out existing fiscal problems and beginning a new budget process with a new County Council and newly elected County Executive Robert Neall.
"We have operated all along under the assumption that in the budget process when the county guessed lower (on budget items), there was gentlemen's agreement that they were willing to help out," White said.
"There are new players and we are told that the agreement is off."
But school budget problems don't end with the $8 million deficit.
Prentice Hall, a major textbook supplier, refused to deliver a shipment to Annapolis High last week until the $4,640 bill -- overdue for several months -- is paid.
Fiscal officer William H. Peacock attributes the problem to a faulty manual bookkeeping system he said will be rectified once the accounting portion of a system-wide integrated computer system is in full operation.
Peacock said a check for $3,237 -- the balance of the outstanding bill -- was sent to the book publisher last night.
"We currently have no way of knowing the age of bills to show how far we are behind," Peacock said. "That's one reason we have the new system.