Harford school budget plea meets council skepticism

April 18, 1993|By Sherrie Ruhl | Sherrie Ruhl,Staff Writer

Harford's school system barely has enough money to get by and desperately needs more to keep up with its booming student population, says the superintendent.

Not so, say some County Council members, who insist the system's administration is top-heavy and wasteful. Do a better job managing the money you have, critics say, before pleading ** for more.

Of course, the school system's needs -- or lack thereof -- depend on whom you ask.

County lawmakers appear divided over the school system budget, setting the stage for a possible legislative battle.

Ray R. Keech, superintendent, told the council the schools need more than the $11 million increase included in County Executive Eileen M. Rehrmann's $162.8 million county operating budget for fiscal 1994. He urged the County Council to restore $4.4 million that the executive trimmed from the school system's proposed budget.

"This is barely enough money to break even. We are opening two new schools in the fall and expect 1,162 new students," Mr. Keech told the council at a Thursday work session on the school operating budget.

The bulk of Mrs. Rehrmann's school increase, about $9.6 million, would cover an employee wage package. The package includes 3 percent raises, merit raises and about $5.5 million for employees' Social Security, which the state stopped paying this year.

Without more money, Mr. Keech said, the school system won't be able to expand programs, like its alternative education program for students at risk of dropping out of high school. Also, he said, other goals such as upgrading part-time assistant principals into full-time assistant principals at elementary schools would be delayed another year.

Robert S. Wagner, a District E Republican, questioned the school system's request for $570,000 more for administration. "The school system is top-heavy in administration costs," he said. "Before I juggle any money their way, I want to make sure it goes into the classroom."

Joanne S. Parrott, a District B Republican, agreed. She said she was outraged that the school system wanted to spend $44,000 to $54,000 to create a new post to coordinate volunteers throughout the school system.

Noting a volunteer coordinator for the entire county makes only about half that, she said: "I know plenty of people who are qualified, without master's degrees, who don't make that kind of money."

Administration spending, including salaries for upper-level employees, should be cut to free more money for programs like an $180,000 alternative education program expansion, she said.

The council sets school spending for 11 categories -- for example, transportation or administrative services. But money cannot be transferred between categories without council approval. The council, which has until May 31 to approve a county budget, can add but not cut money to the school system, and it can cut but not add money to other county departments and agencies.

While some council members balked at any increases, others pledged to trim the budgets of other county departments and agencies to give schools more.

"We are doing what we have done in other years, looking for the excess and pulling those funds," said Theresa M. Pierno, a District C Democrat. She said the school system desperately needs to replace old equipment and perform routine maintenance -- costs the school system said it postponed while building new schools for the county's booming population.

Jeffrey D. Wilson, council president, asked the school system to come back to the council with a list of its priorities that the executive cut, and their price tags. Mr. Wilson asked how much it would cost to upgrade part-time assistant principals to full-time assistant principals at the area's neediest and most crowded elementaries.

He said he also wants to know how much it would cost to hire more teachers. The school system has said it can hire only about three new regular classroom teachers next year, in addition to special education teachers for students with disabilities.

Mrs. Rehrmann said the council shouldn't cut any other department or agency because the budget is so lean. She says the $86.8 million her budget gives the school system covers "98 percent of the school system's priorities. There is no place in any department or agency budget for the council to cut because there is no excess."

The school system's budget for this fiscal year, including state and county funds, is about $147 million. For next fiscal year, which begins July 1, the school board said it needed $169 million. Unless the council gives the schools more money, the system's operating budget will total about $164 million. Under Mrs. Rehrmann's plan, the school system would get about 55 percent of its money, or about $87 million, from the county.

About 45 percent of next fiscal year's budget would come from the state, $72.5 million, which is about $1 million less than requested. The rest would come from federal and other sources, such as box office receipts from sporting events.

The superintendent and some council members plan to push for more money for school construction. The executive's capital budget includes about $9.3 million for schools.

But the school system will get an extra $750,000 in its capital budget from the recently approved tax on real estate transfers whose proceeds will be split between school construction and farmland preservation.

Parents, teachers and administrators from older schools, including Hickory Elementary in Bel Air, Havre de Grace Elementary and Norrisville Elementary, have lobbied for modernization. But none of those schools is slated for renovation.

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