Citizens Trim Requests In Face Of School Fiscal Woes

'Not Going To Be A Year With A Lot Of Money'

January 27, 1991|By Donna E. Boller | Donna E. Boller,Staff writer

This year, the school board budget hearing wasn't quite the same.

"Obviously, many people had tempered their probable requests by the knowledge that this is not going to be a year with a lot of money," saidBoard Vice Chairman Dana F. Hanna. "I think as the night wore on it became obvious that everyone was in touch with that reality."

Board Chairman Deborah D. Kendig emerged from the 4 -hour hearingTuesday less sanguine. "For most people, the reality hasn't sunk in yet. Either that, or hope springs eternal," she said, adding that sheappreciated suggestions from PTA and student government leaders on what to cut.

The "reality" referred to is a fiscal crisis that county government officials say will require a property tax increase even with a 10 percent cut in government expenses and hold-the-line budgets for the school system, community college and library.

For the county school system, holding the line means no increase in the current $140.5 million county contribution toward the $179.6 million 1990-1991 school budget.

It also means a $17 million cut in Superintendent Michael E. Hickey's proposed budget for 1991-1992. The worst-casescenario, a 10 percent cut in revenue, would mean cutting $31 million from the superintendent's $200.8 million budget.

Several speakers at the hearing said they would prefer higher property taxes to cutsthat would hurt school system programs.

"Increase revenues, even if it means an increase in taxes," said Jack Long, a member of the St. John's Lane Elementary School guidance advisory committee. He pressed for full-time elementary school guidance counselors.

Hanna saidhis personal preference would be to ask for a property tax increase to finance the school budget, but he recognizes that many county residents cannot afford that option.

"It would communicate a bad message to people that we're not going to share in what the community as awhole is going through," he said. "We can't just sit there and roll on. It's time to join in the joint belt-tightening."

County Executive Charles I. Ecker said he has also heard from county residents whowould prefer a tax increase to education budget cuts, "but I guess I've been hearing more saying, 'Don't raise taxes.'

"How we balanceeducation's needs against the county needs, that's my problem. I don't want to dismantle the education system. I worked too long in education."

Ecker retired in 1989 as deputy superintendent after a 38-year career in education.

School budget hearings traditionally bring out speakers who press for financing to start new programs or to expand existing ones.

Two years ago, residents lined up at the microphone seeking money for elementary school guidance counselors, expansion of the Black Student Achievement Program, instructional assistants for kindergarten teachers and a seven-period day in high schools.

A year ago, speakers asked the board to speed up phasing in elementary school guidance counselors and to spend more on math, science, music and improvements in programs for gifted and talented and special education students.

Last week, similar requests for money surfaced-- to make part-time elementary school guidance counselors full time; to start placing athletic trainers in high schools; and for math and science. Hickey requested $12,000 to add trainers at two high schools next year, and five speakers urged the board to begin phasing in athletic trainers.

But other speakers scrapped "wish lists" and responded to the board's request for advice on what programs must not becut.

"Our testimony tonight is unprecedented in its lack of specific requests," Rosemary E. S. Mortimer, president of the PTA Council of Howard County, told the board.

Mortimer noted that the budget is difficult to cut because 78 percent is tied up in personnel-relatedcosts (salaries, wages and fixed charges).

Hickey's proposal includes the 6 percent raise for teachers and 5 percent for principals and supervisors negotiated in the Howard County Education Association contract. It also includes proposed 5 percent raises for directors, associate superintendents and other central office staff members not represented by unions. It does not include, however, raises for secretaries and instructional assistants, which are currently being negotiated.

The PTA council's bottom line: Class size should not be increased beyond current averages of 25 students in elementary schools, 20.5 in middle schools and 23.5 in high schools.

The council and several other speakers asked the board to find a creative way to implement a seven-period day in the high schools, a request board members said they will try to honor.

Cost-saving measures suggested by the PTA council include:

* Reduce financing for parochial school busing sothe cost per pupil is no higher than the per pupil cost for public school busing, and deny a request for bus transportation from Glenelg Country School.

* Cut travel, conference, consultants and workshoppay costs.

* Lower building temperatures.

* Consider furloughsand early retirement as alternatives to layoffs.

Students broughtideas on how to cut the budget and asked the board to involve them in the process.

Students see ways to save, said Leonard S. Feldman,president of the Howard County Association of Student Councils. For example, he said, Mount Hebron High School students reported that lockers were painted and new desks brought in over winter vacation, "which the students thought was a waste of money."

Feldman said HCASC is willing to take a cut in 1991-1992 in its $6,500 allocation from the board, but student leaders want the board to reject proposed restrictions on fund-raising. The organization is able to take a budget cut because students make up the difference by raising money, he said.

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