Executive wonders if Berger heard him

January 26, 1995|By Mary Maushard and Larry Carson | Mary Maushard and Larry Carson,Sun Staff Writers

Baltimore County Executive C. A. Dutch Ruppersberger III said yesterday that schools Superintendent Stuart Berger must not have been paying attention when he put together his budget proposal.

The $599.2 million operating budget presented to the school board Tuesday by Dr. Berger asks for $36 million more in county funds and $9

million more from the state next year. The county is projecting a $27 million revenue shortage over the next 18 months.

Mr. Ruppersberger said he had stressed in a meeting with Dr. Berger and his staff the need to rearrange priorities rather than seeking a big budget increase. "They were not really listening to what I was saying," he said.

But Dr. Berger said he is just doing his job -- "articulating the needs of the system" -- and that there are few frills in a "status-quo" budget that represents an increase of about 8 percent, or $45 million, over the current budget.

"That would require a 17-cent increase in the property tax rate," Mr. Ruppersberger said. "I hope the [school] board takes into account the mood of the electorate to hold the line on expenses." The executive already has said he will not ask for a tax increase this year.

"No one's asking for a tax increase," countered Dr. Berger. "Just move the money around. He's running an urban school system. We've got to have Chapter I funds, we've got to have equity grants. . . ."

The superintendent is asking for 47 percent of the expected county revenue, up from the 45 percent going to schools this year. But even with a larger share of tax dollars, the schools will receive a smaller percentage than school systems in 13 other counties in the state, he said in his budget message.

And although Dr. Berger said he thought his budget had "excellent chances" of being approved as is, Mr. Ruppersberger suggested that it would not. In comments designed to get the school board's attention as members consider the budget request over the next month, Mr. Ruppersberger made it clear that he feels cuts must be made.

The executive said he told school officials and board members in December that his priority is class size -- keeping it from getting any larger, even with about 4,000 new students coming into the system every year.

Carrying out Mr. Ruppersburger's goal would mean spending $9.1 million more in salary and benefits for 260 new employees: 227 teachers, 16 instructional assistants and 17 clerical workers, according to Dr. Berger's budget. The 227 positions also include principals for two new alternative middle schools and additional assistant principals in a dozen schools, though some of them will be half-time positions.

That amount, coupled with $5.7 million in already-negotiated salary increments for years of accumulated service for teachers and administrators, would result in a budget increase of about $15 million just to accomplish the aim of preserving current class size.

This increase seems more realistic to Steve Kirschner, the county's deputy administrative officer for finance. He said Dr. Berger's request was about $25 million more than the county executive's office estimate of how much it would cost to maintain class size.

But Dr. Berger said such restraints are highly unrealistic. "Increments and class size, there's no way that that's do-able," he said. "I know it's a lot of money, but I feel very comfortable with it."

The school system and the county government traditionally spar over budget requests, but Dr. Berger said he did not see opening comments "as the beginning of a battle."

"I think it's the beginning of a process," he said. The board will adopt its budget Feb. 28 and present it to Mr. Ruppersberger. His county budget goes to the County Council in April and must be acted on by June 1.

Among major expenditures in Dr. Berger's proposed budget were $2.1 million to comply with state law by replacing 52 school buses that are 12 years old, $6.6 million for new programs at both magnet and neighborhood schools, and $2.5 million to make up for money that the federal government is reallocating for Chapter I schools.

Formerly, nearly 40 county schools with a large number of students on free and reduced-price lunches received money from the federal government for additional classroom aides and individual programs. Now, that money will be focused on the 10 neediest schools, and the county is attempting to pick up the slack for the other schools.

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