School budget approved Board members displeased

June 02, 1993|By Lan Nguyen | Lan Nguyen,Staff Writer

A frustrated and angry Howard County school board yesterday approved a $203 million spending budget -- $4.5 million short of their request for next school year -- and criticized what they believe is eroding support for education.

Although County Executive Charles I. Ecker and the County Council have agreed to restore $2.2 million if income tax revenues increase sufficiently, board members said the budget reflects shortsightedness.

"The politicians of this county and state have let students of Howard County down," said board vice-chairwoman Susan Cook. "They used to have support for education and now they don't.

"They're slitting their own throats when they cut the education system. People need to wake up and realize people move to Howard County because of the education system."

The budget is "serviceable, it's utilitarian," said Sandra French, board member. "I'm not pleased with it because individual students are losing what has been part of their experience."

In approving the budget, the Board agreed to:

* Start high school 15 minutes earlier, at 7:30 a.m., to cut $360,000 from transportation costs. But members did so with reluctance.

"I don't want school to start 15 minutes earlier," said Ms. Cook, who said she already wakes up at 5:30 a.m. to keep her two high school-aged daughters from fighting for curlers and hair dryers. "The other option was to increase walking distance by one-quarter mile, and I wasn't willing to agree with that. [The change] is going to upset my life and others' lives."

School officials pointed out that Howard was not the only county that has early opening times -- Montgomery County schools start at 7:20 a.m., 10 minutes earlier than Howard's new starting time.

"This was a tough choice," said board member Linda Johnston, citing concerns about teachers and bus drivers who have to make new day-care arrangements for their toddlers. "We didn't have much to choose from. Hopefully, the day-care problem will work out."

Students leaving for school before daylight is a concern, but "if I'm going to buy that totally, I won't allow high-schoolers to go out after dark," said board chairman Dana Hanna.

* Reduce the amount of money to bus private and parochial school students by $190,000. Mr. Hanna noted that the county's Human Rights Commission is asking the Attorney General to determine whether the county is spending its money properly.

* Cut the after-school gifted and talented dance program to save $10,000, despite protests from parents and students involved in the program. Board members said they felt it was an inappropriate program to offer in light of pressure to cut the budget. "Dance classes are offered all over the county," said Mr. Hanna.

Board member Deborah Kendig added that siblings of students already in the program were waiting to enroll, and "that's not quite the way I perceive a gifted and talented program working."

Board member Sandra French likened the dance program to the schools' drivers education program, which was cut in 1987. "We have to protect the environment of the classroom," she said. "That means sometimes adding new programs that will enhance" and cutting others that don't.

* Eliminate the high school interscholastic golf and gymnastics programs to save $75,000. Although that is a small amount compared to the cost of other sports, Superintendent Michael E. Hickey said golf and gymnastics cost the highest per student participating. Out of 24 school districts in Maryland, only Howard and two other counties have gymnastics programs, and the two others are considering cutting gymnastics too, he said.

While parents had testified that their students would be willing to pay a fee to play, "unless we charge a fee for all sports, we can't charge a fee for golf or gymnastics," Mr. Hickey said.

Ms. Cook cited her concerns for student safety as a reason why she was willing to cut out gymnastics. "I witnessed a practice and it scared me," she said. "There wasn't anyone with the girls. [They were spotting one another, and] they were chatting among themselves, and they weren't paying attention.

"I see the liabilities as absolutely astronomical," she said. "I'm not willing to take responsibility for the sports, simply because of the liabilities."

Mr. Hanna said he had problems with the golf program being so exclusive -- 32 students countywide participate.

County officials have promised to restore $2.2 million to the budget if the income tax revenue in January is 10 percent higher than last year's.

In cutting some programs and costs, the Board wanted to keep contract negotiations intact with teachers, who will be getting a 3 percent across-the-board increase July 1. The board will add some funding to hire more maintenance workers and additional teachers to staff schools that have unexpected increases in student population. It also plans to restore $10,000 for the Black Student Achievement Program and as much as $730,000 to buy textbooks for the new eastern high school.

The board also approved a $47 million capital budget for next year and agreed to increase the salary level by 2.25 percent for beginning teachers. Under the board's plan, a teacher starting with a provisional degree certificate will be paid $19,200.

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