The Anne Arundel County Board of Education is spending money so quickly that it could be $3 million in the hole by the end of this fiscal year, a county auditor says.
Bruce Emge, an assistant county auditor, notified the County Council of the potential problem last month after he analyzed the board's spending habits over five months.
In a Jan. 4 letter, Mr. Emge cited problems in three of the school system's budget categories: "other instructional costs," special education and fixed charges.
"It doesn't look good" for a department to come to the council at the end of a fiscal year and say it has overspent, Mr. Emge said in an interview yesterday.
"They've got an opportunity now to do things to reduce current spending levels."
Ronald L. Beckett, associate superintendent for support services, confirmed last night there is a "projected shortfall."
He said that the school system already has set aside $1 million to help cover the shortfall and that it also has $1.7 million in unappropriated funds -- money the council has not yet given approval for spending -- that can be used to offset the deficit, "if it should materialize," Mr. Beckett said.
In his letter, Mr. Emge said he had discussed the problem in December with Jack White, then the acting director of financial services for the school board. Mr. White has since retired and could not be reached for comment.
Mr. Emge said in his letter that Mr. White indicated some spending soon would return to normal. But Mr. White also said that hiring new employees could push the schools' operating costs over its budget.
Mr. Beckett blamed the shortfall in part on the County Council, which cut $1.6 million from wages and salaries, figuring the money would be saved when highly paid employees depart and their positions are left vacant or filled by someone earning less money.
In addition, the board has filled nearly a half-dozen positions, including a new lawyer for the superintendent and a supervisor of investigative services, recommended by a panel that investigated a teacher-student sex scandal, he said.
The council did not include money for those jobs, but school officials felt they were under "a mandate" to create the jobs, Mr. Beckett said.
"We won't have to ask them for any more money," he said. "I think when they've been briefed, they'll understand and will help us with a fourth-quarter transfer."
But Council Chairwoman Diane R. Evans, an Arnold Republican, said the news of the school board's spending problem "is symptomatic of what I've feared all along -- that they're spending more than is necessary to get the job done."
"I would urge the Board of Education to cover that shortfall," she said.
After a recent disagreement over the cost of building new libraries in seven schools, the school board should by now have received "a very clear message that this County Council has more of a hands-on interest in education spending than in the past," said John J. Klocko III, a South County Republican. "They've got to get their ducks in a row and be prepared to defend requests for appropriations."