"We're looking at laying people off. This is not just the seven-period day. This is big time."
That somber warning was delivered in anemotion-choked voice last week by Deborah D. Kendig, chairwoman of the county school board.
Three days earlier, Kendig, Superintendent Michael E. Hickey and PTA Council President Rosemary E. S. Mortimer had gotten the word from County Executive Charles I. Ecker not to expect any increase in theschool system's operating budget for 1991-1992, despite an anticipated 1,100 additional pupils.
Board members say the budget constraints are likely to mean no new initiatives, not even the $400,000 Hickey allocated for a scaled-back version of the seven-period day in county high schools.
Program cuts are likely. Hickey said layoffs are probable, even under the "best case" scenario of county financing equal to this year's allocation. He said he hasn't yet looked at how many employees might be affected.
In the face of a recession that cutthe county's revenues from piggyback income taxes, a prospective increase in property taxes and a 10 percent cut in government expenditures, Kendig and her four colleagues had a request for citizens who plan to testify at Tuesday's school budget hearing:
Don't ask for newprograms or expansions of existing programs. Tell us what programs are absolutely essential to the operation of the school system and should not be cut.
"People traditionally come in with a 'wish list' of improvements and enhancements," said Dana F. Hanna, board vice chairman. "This year we need to start considering what things are absolutely necessary for the operation of the system. . . . If we're all speaking on enhancements, it leaves the board without any input on what is absolutely essential."
The budget hearing will be at 7:30 p.m. Tuesday at the Department of Education, 10910 Route 108, Ellicott City.
Board members said they understand that the county's near-term financial future looks grim at the moment, but they will not ask for less than the school system needs to operate next year.
"I will not sit here and preside over the dismantling of the school system," Kendig said.
Hickey's proposed budget for 1991-1992, drawn up beforeEcker got a clear picture of the state of the county's economy, projects spending at $200.8 million, an 11.8 percent increase over the current year. The county's share of the school budget would rise from $140.5 million to $157.5 million, a 12 percent increase.
Ecker pointed out at his Jan. 8 press conference on the budget that the board is not legally required to finance the teacher contract. However, he said his only plan is to give the school board a dollar amount and letboard members decide how to spend it.
The contract signed in May 1990 by the school board and Howard County Education Association gives teachers a 6 percent increase in each of the pact's three years.
Hanna said board members had not discussed the subject recently, buthave a standing commitment to honor employee contracts and not to renegotiate. The board said no to HCEA's June 1990 request to reopen negotiations after principals and assistant principals complained aboutsmaller percentage increases than teachers received.
The board iscurrently negotiating a new contract with secretaries and instructional assistants, who are represented by HCEA.
Hanna said he could not comment on the status of the talks, "but obviously it behooves us to negotiate with (the budget situation) in mind."
If the board does not receive enough money from the county government to operate theschools and give teachers the raises contained in the contract, state law allows the board to implement a salary schedule.
Marius Ambrose, Maryland State Teachers Association representative for Howard County, pointed out that it may not come to that.
"Things could get worse, or they could get a lot better," Ambrose said. "The economy could turn around. The bottom line is that on June 30, if we've met with the board and they have no money, they have the right to implement whatever (salary) they have the money to fund."
Hickey's assessment of the budget situation is that in the best case outlined by the county executive -- financing equal to the current year -- the board would have to cut $17 million from his budget proposal. In the worst case, a 10 percent cut in revenues, the board would have to cut $31 million.
The superintendent said he needs $8.5 million for employee contracts currently in effect, $1.6 million for teachers, desks and books for the 1,100 additional students expected next year and $2.1 million for principals, assistant principals, secretaries and instructional assistants for the two new schools opening next fall.
NOTE: SEE ALSO SIDEBAR (COMPUTER GLITCHES CREATE HAVOC IN SCHOOL BUDGET)