Acknowledging Howard County's grim financial straits, school Superintendent Michael E. Hickey recommended last night slashing $10.5 million from the $200.8 million budget request he made this month.
To save the $10.5 million, Dr. Hickey proposed eliminating 59 positions and reducing programs and the purchase of new equipment.
"We significantly have to change the way we do business, and people will be very upset because programs will be affected," he told the school board and about 175 gloomy school employees.
Dr. Hickey called the decision to eliminate 59 positions "the most agonizing" he had to make, though he expects the employees to be shifted to other jobs.
Most of the cuts will come from the central office, including curriculum supervisors, resource teachers and staff development specialists. But 13 teachers of gifted and talented students also will be moved to other jobs.
Dr. Hickey reduced his request after County Executive Charles I. Ecker warned him that the county is facing serious shortfalls in tax revenues and could not increase its share of the education budget by more than $5.5 million over this year's contribution of $140 million.
Dr. Hickey is seeking a $6.5 million increase in county funds -- $1 million more than the limit set by the executive. But the superintendent said the $6.5 million increase is needed to absorb 1,287 new students expected next year, hire 160 more teachers, open two schools, give teachers a negotiated 6 percent raise and maintain class size.
To save money, Dr. Hickey recommended that the school system:
* Eliminate a new program to add one period to the school day in seven of the county's high schools.
* Forgo buying $50,000 worth of athletic equipment and 190 new computers.
* Delay replacing music equipment.
* Cut transportation for field trips and reduce the parochial school busing program.
* Stop hiring substitutes to enable teachers to attend staff development workshops and programs.
* Eliminate a pool of teachers now sent to schools with unexpected enrollment increases.
Rosemary Mortimer, president of the county's PTA Council, said Dr. Hickey was faced with "no good choices" in making the cuts.
The cuts have been a blow to Howard school officials and employees who were able to spend freely during the 1980s.
"I really don't want to call this work session to order," said school board Chairwoman Deborah D. Kendig. "This is probably the worst couple weeks the administrators have ever spent," she said. "I found myself waking up at 2 a.m. and asking, 'How are we going to do this?' " said Dr. Joan Palmer, associate superintendent of curriculum, supervision and staff development.
Dr. Hickey said the only other sizable cut during his tenure came in fiscal 1988, when $4 million was trimmed. Driver education and much of the summer school program were eliminated.
But now, because of an economic downturn that left the county with an $18 million shortfall in the current budget and a grim outlook for the coming year, the school system faces what Dr. Hickey the "biggest fiscal crisis . . . in recent history."
Ironically, the man administering the bitter medicine to education is a former deputy superintendent of county schools.
"The economy is causing the cutbacks. I am not enjoying it," Mr. Ecker said. He said government agencies will have to cut spending 10 percent while schools and the library hold the line on expenses.
In actuality, the school system will get about $5.5 million more than it did this year because officials learned recently that the state requires jurisdictions to at least maintain the same level of annual spending per pupil.
The school board will hold three workshops before approving TC final budget request Feb. 19. The workshops will be held at 7:30 p.m. Feb. 5, 7 and 12 in the school system's boardroom.