Schools superintendent gets warning on budget

January 11, 1995|By Lan Nguyen | Lan Nguyen,Sun Staff Writer

Even before Superintendent Michael E. Hickey's proposed operating budget for next fiscal year was officially unveiled last night, it was in trouble.

The county does not have the money to finance the $229.8 million proposed school budget, County Executive Charles I. Ecker said in an interview yesterday. The proposal seeks a $12 million increase over the budget for the current fiscal year.

"We won't be able to fund it," Mr. Ecker said. "We can't go that high."

Mr. Ecker sounded his warning after learning that the county expects to receive only $10 million more in revenue this year than last year. That amount has to address the needs not only of the school system, but the community college, court system and the sheriff's department, among others.

Mr. Ecker offered some hope for Dr. Hickey, saying that he would reduce some items in the overall county budget to give the school system an increase of as much as $10 million. "The most and the best scenerio would be between $6 and $10 million," said Mr. Ecker, a former associate county school superintendent.

Dr. Hickey's proposal asks for a $12 million increase to deal with enrollment growth, which is expected to bring in an additional 1,800 students in the next school year and would be the largest one-year increase the system has experienced.

Dr. Hickey's proposal has not taken into account salary raises for the school system's 4,300 employees, the majority in unions that are negotiating for new contracts.

A 1 percent salary increase for all school employees would add $1.6 million to the budget, officials estimate.

Dr. Hickey, who presented his proposal for the first time to the school board last night, described it as "an economically and politically viable budget." His proposal includes money for more textbooks; for hiring more than 200 teachers and classroom assistants to meet enrollment increases; for mainstreaming special education students; for helping other pupils with extra needs -- underachieving black students, non-English-speaking students; and for improving middle-schoolers' math performance.

During his presentation, Dr. Hickey emphasized that roughly $4 million of the requested increase would cover the cost of buying equipment and books required to open two high schools and one elementary school in the fall of 1996.

Addressing Mr. Ecker's grim announcement, Dr. Hickey said the county has a responsibility to meet the needs of the school system. "We didn't create this growth," he said. "County government did [so] through zoning. We're trying to respond to it. We've done the best we can."

But Mr. Ecker said in the interview that only about one-third of the 1,800 students expected in the schools next fall would come from families moving into the county. The rest are from the growing families that already are here, he said.

"County government is not responsible for the birthrate," he said. "I can't say [to residents] you can have so many babies."

In the past three years, county government has trimmed roughly $11 million from the budgets submitted by the school board.

Board Chairwoman Susan Cook said the cuts have finally caught up, requiring the school system to budget for items that should have been acquired long ago -- textbooks, for example.

The school system's operating budget has increased 16 percent since fiscal year 1993, compared with the system's overall enrollment growth of close to 10 percent during the same time period.

Part of the 16 percent increase in the budget was due to a change in procedures that required the school system to pay Social Security taxes for its employees -- a burden of about $8 million a year.

Some school board members and parents were calling for property tax increases last night as a way to finance the school system's budget.

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