School budget battle shapes up in Towson Berger accused of withholding details BALTIMORE COUNTY

March 24, 1993|By Larry Carson | Larry Carson,Staff Writer

Baltimore County Superintendent Stuart Berger's first budget battle with the Hayden administration is shaping up as a fireworks display.

County budget officers say school officials are stonewalling on vital budget information and are risking deep cuts in the $534 million school budget request if they continue.

Dr. Berger says he's provided all the information possible and doesn't know what the fuss is about. Both sides hint that the other is trying to manipulate the situation for some ulterior purpose.

The press of time is feeding the tensions.

With less than a month left before Mr. Hayden is due to present his budget to the County Council, his top budget officials are boiling over what they say is the failure of school administrators to keep their promises and reveal details of their budget.

The details are needed in the next week, they say, because the information will be the basis for Mr. Hayden's final decisions DTC about what to fund and what to cut from the school request. Currently, school spending accounts for 42 percent of the county budget.

Anything left in doubt will be cut, county administrative officer Merreen E. Kelly said in a March 17 letter to school board President Rosalie Hellman.

The cuts could result in larger classes, less money for computer equipment, and could perhaps destroy Dr. Berger's ability to pay for an early retirement incentive program, the letter says.

Budget officials suspect that Dr. Berger, anticipating some cuts, is stonewalling the administration in hopes of protecting some -- "mystery money" that he can use for various purposes after the budget is adopted.

"That's nonsense. It's ludicrous," Dr. Berger said. "I offered to meet with them [county budget officials]. They refused." He insists his staff has provided all the details it has.

If the Hayden administration is looking for an excuse to make big education cuts, however, Dr. Berger suggested that accusing him of being uncooperative could be an effective smoke screen.

Mr. Hayden said he has agreed to meet with Dr. Berger and Mrs. Hellman to discuss the problems.

The dispute represents the first major conflict between the Hayden administration and Dr. Berger, who became superintendent last July.

The county executive and council decide how much money the schools get each year, but the school board is an independent body and protective of its control over the educational system.

Mr. Hayden will present his budget April 15. The spending plan covers the fiscal year starting July 1. After it is presented, the council has until June 1 to study Mr. Hayden's budget and make further cuts.

Most likely to be cut from the school budget is the $9.5 million Dr. Berger requested to fund $1,400 pay raises for teachers.

Pay raises for other county workers are considered highly unlikely, since Mr. Hayden was forced to lay off more than 300 county workers last month. No school workers were laid off.

In his letter, Mr. Kelly said he has been asking for information for weeks about a proposed early retirement program for school workers, which he believes would cost the county more than it would save.

The incentive program offers eligible teachers a cash retirement bonus and credit for five extra years of service toward the cost of their retirement health benefits.

Other attempts to get details of Dr. Berger's reorganization plans have been nearly as unproductive, Mr. Kelly said. County budget officials were fuming yesterday after receiving a one-sentence reply and a copy of a federal tax form in response to a request for detailed Social Security costs.

In his letter, Mr. Kelly also pointed out that Dr. Berger's budget includes funds for a 12 percent increase in health insurance costs, while the carrier is demanding a 20 percent increase in premiums.

School officials have not explained where the extra money would come from if the higher costs prevail.

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