Wilson wants more for education

April 04, 1993|By Sherrie Ruhl | Sherrie Ruhl,Staff Writer

Harford's school spending would increase 14 percent under the county executive's operating budget.

But that's not nearly enough, say critics, including the County Council president, who wants to cut other departments' budgets to give schools more.

Noting that Harford's per-pupil school spending ranks 22nd of 24 Maryland subdivisions, the Rev. Jeffrey D. Wilson, the council president, said: "Whatever we do for schools won't be enough. I pledge to look hard at the budget so that dollars can be freed up for education."

Mr. Wilson said county schools need more money for supplies, library books and computers. And he said continuing to neglect routine maintenance was foolish because some schools and equipment are deteriorating to the point that they could longer be repaired.

The school system, which had sought $91.4 million, would receive about $87 million, an $11 million increase, under County Executive Eileen M. Rehrmann's $162.8 million operating budget for fiscal 1994.

Bid to restore $4.4 million

To increase that amount, Mr. Wilson would have to persuade at least three of the six other council members to vote with him. The council, which has until May 31 to adopt the county budget, can cut any of the county's 27 department budgets but can add money only to the school budget.

Other council members say they need to scrutinize the budget before deciding spending priorities.

Keith Williams, a school board member, said he will ask the council to restore the $4.4 million Mrs. Rehrmann cut from the school system's proposed budget. "We need that money for the schools. We can't do without it," he said.

County spending for schools this fiscal year increased $2.7 million over the previous one.

County Councilman Robert S. Wagner of District E said he would be willing to siphon money from other departments for education if it would go into the classroom but not to guarantee the salary increases for teachers.

'No real growth'

Ronald Eaton, a school board member, said the $11 million increase is deceptive. "When you factor in inflation, the 1,200 new students we expect and the cost of opening three new schools, there is no real growth in the education budget," he said.

The bulk of the increase, $9.6 million, would cover 3 percent cost-of-living raises, step increases and Social Security payments for the school system's 3,600 employees. The state stopped making Social Security payments for teachers and some other county workers this fiscal year. School employees, including more than 2,100 teachers, have not had a cost-of-living raise for three years.

The school board had asked for money to hire about 180 LTC teachers and other full-time employees, including more guidance counselors. The board had also wanted to upgrade 11 part-time assistant principals to full-time.

"A lot of these changes are out of the question now," Mr. Eaton said.

The school board, which this year passed an operating budget )) of about $169 million, has requested $73.3 million from the state, up from $66.9 million this year. The state is expected to pass its budget in the next few weeks. Under the school board's budget, the county would contribute 55 percent and the state 43 percent. The rest would come from federal and other sources, such as box office receipts from sporting events.

Away games at risk

Mr. Eaton also said the tight budget could mean limiting the number of away games for sports because of the costs of furnishing a bus and driver. Extracurricular sports have remained relatively unscathed in previous school budget cuts, he said.

"Everyone is going to have to pitch in and tighten their belt," he said.

Larry Klimovitz, director of administration, said the school board has "tremendous flexibility" in deciding how to spend county money. One option, he said, would be to give employees a smaller raise and use the money for other educational programs -- a move the county teachers union vehemently opposes.

"The teachers would not stand for that," said Jean R. Thomas, president of the Harford County Education Association. But Mrs. Thomas said she thinks it's unlikely the school board would cut negotiated raises or step increases.

Places for cuts

The budget got a generally favorable review from Anne D. Sterling, the county school board president.

"The budget is not nearly as bad as I thought it would be," she said. "There are places we can cut. We have learned to shave money from the budget."

Mrs. Sterling said routine maintenance could be postponed, and purchases of textbooks, equipment and school furniture could be cut.

The school board's budget includes $900,000 for maintenance and $500,000 to replace worn-out equipment.

Albert F. Seymour, spokesman for Harford schools, said the school system would move ahead with its top priorities. However, many spending decisions can't be made until county and state funds are official.

The school system's priorities include the wage package for employees and opening three schools in the fall: Fallston Middle, Fountain Green Elementary in Bel Air and Church Creek Elementary in Belcamp, Mr. Seymour said.

The school system has also pledged to launch the first year of a five-year plan to integrate children with disabilities into regular schools. That could cost about $1.3 million.

Mrs. Sterling said she would like to see the school system hire 16 art teachers for elementary schools. Average starting pay for teachers is about $24,600.

She said another goal is to use about $145,000 to replace outdated reference materials at the county's 46 school libraries.

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