Union Says School Budget Has $7 Million To Spare

November 03, 1991|By JoAnna Daemmrich | JoAnna Daemmrich,Staff writer

Anne Arundel teachers could completely avoid the threat of layoffs or wage cuts if the school system stopped its "spending frenzy" and carved $7 million worth of non-essentials out of its budget, union leaders contend.

An independent auditor hired by the Teachers Association of Anne Arundel County found $2 million in construction projects,$2 million in equipment costs and $3 million in other items that could be cut with limited impact on classroom instruction, said union president Thomas J. Paolino. The findings mean the school system could come up with the $5.1 million reduction ordered by County Executive Robert R. Neall without pay cuts or layoffs, Paolino said.

But budget analysts for the county and school administration vehemently disagree that $7 million could be cut from the "bare-bones budget" without crippling student programs. A budget officer called the idea "amazing" and "downright ridiculous."

"That's so amazing, I don't know where to start," said Jack White, head of the school budgetoffice. "Mr. Paolino apparently went looking for money and thought he found some, but he didn't look closely enough. I have no idea wherethere's any sort of surplus to cut."

Paolino said he plans to detail the auditor's findings at a County Council hearing on reopening the budget process tomorrow night. Hundreds of county employees and teachers are expected to turn out for the meeting.

The union hired Rockville-based auditor R. J. Pellicoro Associates to scrutinize the school system's $14 million capital budget and $341.4 million operating budget for savings, said Charles LoCascio, executive director of TAAC. In an effort to forestall layoffs or a 3 percent wage cut for all6,692 school employees, union leaders are struggling to find other cost-cutting measures, he said.

"We feel there is money that can betouched before they touch employees," Paolino said in a telephone interview Friday from a Maryland State Teachers Association convention in Ocean City. "We think there are other ways to find this money, but(Neall) seems to want to talk about salaries, period."

Among the $7 million in unspent items the auditor found are pay-as-you-go construction, repairs and replacement of old equipment, workshops, travel fees, in-service days, grounds maintenance and some supplies.

While he acknowledged that some of the cuts would affect programs, Paolino said that salary cuts would hurt employee morale and classroom instruction. He will urge the council to take a closer look, saying he fears the school administration will otherwise use up all the money in its "frenzy to spend every penny possible."

White termed that assessment of the central office "absurd" and said most of the $341 million operating budget is earmarked for employee salaries. More than $244 million is spent on wages and another $35 million on health benefits, he said.

Other fixed costs include $9 million for debt service,$10 million for maintaining and heating the schools, $20 million fortransportation and $6 million for educating disabled children. That leaves little room to negotiate on supplies, equipment and repairs, he said.

"I would submit that without touching salaries, there's really no way to do what the county executive wants to do," White said.

Paolino argued the school system should postpone $2 million in new building projects, including expanding the Center for Applied Technology in South County and converting the old Lindale Junior High building into the regional North County High School. He said he objects to Neall's philosophy that government construction will stimulate the economy.

"I think it's incredible that the county executive says we can't cut construction because it will cut the money going to the contractors," Paolino said. "He's going to pay the construction companies and not the employees."

Responding to the union leader, Neall spokeswoman Louise Hayman said the executive agreed with Gov. WilliamDonald Schaefer, who has embarked on a "New Deal" tactic to jump-start the state's slumping economy. Schaefer said Thursday he plans to speed up as many approved government construction projects as possible.

"If you delay projects and cut all the programs, you are going to have to lay off employees, too. In a sense, it's a two-edged sword," she said.

County budget analyst Gregory Nourse said Neall does plan to cut $1.2 million from pay-as-you-go projects, although none include school construction. Most school projects are financed with bonds. Only $2 million has been earmarked for projects not financed through bond sales.

"Apparently, they just took that line item," Nourse said. "But some of that has already been spent, so I'm not sure howthat would work out."

Projects in the pay-as-you-go category include asbestos testing, installing air conditioning as part of soundproofing the Glen Burnie and Oakwood elementary schools, setting up class partitions and portable rooms, and school expansions, he said.

While some projects could be postponed, he said, there's no guarantee the county or state could scrape together enough money to complete the construction in fiscal 1993.

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