School budgets inciting fighting

January 29, 1991|By From staff reports Larry Carson, Monica Norton, Norris P. West and Bruce Reid contributed to this story.

The process hasn't been pretty: Local school superintendents make sizable budget requests each winter, politicians who hold the purse strings charge fiscal gluttony and slash the schools' requests. Educators and some parents counter that the leaders are insensitive to education.

It may get even uglier this year.

After years of revenue gains, suburban government officials are grappling with flat budget growth or even projected deficits in a recession. Their patience for requests for more money from various departments will be slimmer than ever, they have indicated.

And yet, the first round of money requests from schools officials, with proposed increases ranging from 9 to 20 percent, foretell of budget wrangling as seasonal as daffodils.

Baltimore County politicians generally tread lightly in reacting to a record $55 million, 12 percent budget increase request from school Superintendent Robert Y. Dubel last week.

County Executive Roger B. Hayden, himself a school board member for 12 years, was also reluctant to say much except to note that the school board must examine the request before he gets it. After the board acts, the executive and council review the school budget.

However, Councilman William A. Howard, R-6th, said the teacher-to-student ratio of nearly 25-to-1 that the superintendent wants to maintain isn't sacrosanct, in his opinion. Dubel wants to add 221 teachers and others to accommodate 4,000 more students. "This concept of class size is overrated," Howard said.

Still other members spoke of education as an expense taxpayers were more willing to bear. Councilman Vincent Gardina, D-5th, whose Perry Hall district is bursting with new students, said the county is facing a crisis and must build new schools and staff them properly or face years of repeated school boundary shifts and disputes.

Similarly in Anne Arundel County, the executive, Robert R. Neall, said through a spokeswoman that it was too early to comment on Superintendent Larry L. Lorton's proposed $358.8 million school budget.

The 1992 proposed budget is 9 percent greater than this year's.

RTC Neall had said the county is looking to zero budget growth. The county executive and the county council have said they will not take pay raises this year and county employees also are being told not to count on cost-of-living adjustments.

Thomas J. Paolino, president of the Teachers Association of Anne Arundel County, would not say what pay increase his union, which represents 3,725 teachers, is seeking this year with negotiations ongoing. The teachers are coming off a three-year contract that paid raises of 9 percent raises each year. The average salary for an Anne Arundel teacher is $38,000.

"It is an austere budget," Paolino said of Lorton's proposal. "There are almost no new programs and there's no cost of living increase. We are currently in the process of negotiations."

In Howard County, it appears unlikely that Superintendent Michael E. Hickey will receive the 12 percent, $21 million increase that he is proposing for next year.

County Executive Charles I. Ecker, a former deputy school superintendent, said his administration, which is grappling with projected budget deficits this year and in fiscal 1992, is trying to hold the line on spending. Education will suffer along with other county departments, he said.

Howard's Board of Education has scheduled a work session today to hear from school administrators about which programs and operations would be cut under various spending levels.

"We are very, very, very concerned. We've got 1,100 new kids coming in and two new schools scheduled to open next year," school board member Deborah Kendig said. "With the current level of funding next year, you're talking about virtually dismantling the school system."

Carroll County school officials said they don't plan to announce their budget proposal until next week.

In Harford County, Superintendent Ray R. Keech is asking for $26 million, or 20 percent, more in operating money.

At the same time, new County Executive Eileen M. Rehrmann is trying to keep the county in the black through hiring freezes and by postponing government building projects.

That conflict is expected to increase tension among Harford decision-makers. The school board and teachers had a long-running dispute with Habern W. Freeman, Rehrmann's predecessor, over how much teachers should paid vs. other needs of the school system, including books and more staff.

The county has traditionally achieved good results despite being among the lowest school spenders in the state.

In July, teachers in Harford will enter the third year of a contract with the school board. The contract calls for 8 percent raises for the teachers and all other school workers. That contract is not binding, however, because the county executive and the council must approve the budget.

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