Balto. Co. Council gets hard lesson Cutting the school budget isn't as simple it seems.

May 13, 1991|By Larry Carson and Meredith Schlow | Larry Carson and Meredith Schlow,Evening Sun Staff

To five new Baltimore County Council members eager to cut the budget, a 50-percent increase for one special education program probably seemed an inviting target.

But what the largely freshman council came to learn is that cutting the school budget isn't as easy as ABC.

The council has until June 1 to make any cuts in County Executive Roger B. Hayden's $1.1 billion budget for the fiscal year that begins July 1. By law, the council may only cut, not add money.

The jump from $6.2 million to $9.2 million in one year for special placements for emotionally disturbed and sometimes physically handicapped students was brought up Tuesday during a special briefing that Dundalk Councilman Donald C. Mason, D-7th, arranged.

The session, conducted by John D. O'Neill, a retired businessman who helped lead a county tax revolt last year, sought to elicit hard questions about the nearly $500 million school budget.

Mason's oft-proclaimed goal for this council is to lower the property tax rate to $2.77 per $100 of assessed value from the current $2.895. At that rate, the county wouldn't collect any additional revenue than it did this year, despite rising property assessments. Hayden has proposed cutting the rate by 2 cents to $2.875.

To help cut the $13 million needed to achieve his goal, Mason recruited O'Neill, who last year led residents in unsuccessful petition drives to end charter government and to cap county government spending.

Whether the council makes cuts in education or any other category has not been decided, but what appeared by numbers alone to be a fat increase in special education spending perhaps provided a good lesson about the rigors of finding cuts.

School officials told the council that more and more deeply troubled kids, many with multiple physical and emotional problems, are attending county schools. The increase is because government now requires public schools to find the "least restrictive environment," a frequently expensive goal, for children with special needs, educators explained.

There were so many more of these students during this current school year, for example, that the county hadn't budgeted enough money for them. More than half the $3 million increase proposed must go to reimburse the county for the expense of providing for those students.

In cases where children have to be sent to special residential schools out of state, the cost can run from $50,000 to $110,000 a year, said Thomas D. Miller, director of special programs. Although the state pays the majority of the cost in those cases, the county still pays up to $15,000 per year for each special needs student -- in or out of state.

In other examples, Superintendent Robert Y. Dubel spoke about a $6,000 machine the county bought to enable one child with a profound disability to communicate. Other specialized day programs for handicapped children can cost up to $25,000 per child, he said.

The proposed special education budget also seeks money for about 27 more teaching positions, to accommodate 1,175 more special needs students expected to attend special day schools such as White Oak as well as general education schools throughout the county.

With their budget scissors thus dulled by the discussion, the council members were left with few tough questions for Dubel and no specific cuts in mind.

Councilwoman Berchie L. Manley, R-1st, in fact, seemed interested in finding new money to spend on schools. She commented on the "deplorable" condition of school buildings in her Catonsville district and asked how the county would ever get the money to fix all the leaky roofs and damaged floors, walls and ceilings left from years of neglect.

Questioned by a reporter about the council's budget options, William A. Howard 4th, R-6th, another avid advocate of reducing taxes, could only joke, "We're going to cut advertising in newspapers."

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