The Baltimore County Council cut $4.4 million from the school budget yesterday -- the largest cut in nearly two decades, and one that would eliminate 50 teaching positions and boost class sizes, school officials say.
Superintendent Stuart Berger said the cuts would "absolutely" affect classrooms. "A school that was planning on three third grades now will have only two," he said, offering an example after the council vote.
But council members refused to back down, calling for more control over the school budget, including a line-item veto. Scolding school officials, the council stressed that cuts were aimed at administrators rather than students.
Acting on a budget proposal from County Executive C. A. Dutch Ruppersberger III, the council took most of its $6.7 million in cuts from the school system before approving a $1.3 billion county budget for 1995. The cuts were made in two categories within the $608 million school budget: employee benefits and administration.
By comparison, a total of $1.5 million was trimmed from the last two county budgets combined.
Mr. Ruppersberger cut $22 million from the school board's request before sending it to the council. His budget plan granted the schools a spending increase of $13.5 million for the fiscal year that begins July 1.
The council is using some of the budget savings to lower closing costs on real estate sales by cutting the county transfer tax -- which was the highest in Maryland -- and for road and alley repaving.
In the council's 21-page budget message, which frequently chastised the board and the school system, Chairman Vincent J. Gardina called the cuts minimal. "We emphasize that the reductions we have made are in areas that will not affect . . . teachers, students and classrooms."
The strongly worded message, complete with warnings against "cutting classroom resources," was the latest round of bickering between the county government and the semiautonomous school board.
Among the many reprimands in the message was this: "We perceive a pattern in the management practices of the Department of Education which requires correction." And, "the department appears only too willing to avoid accountability."
But board President Paul Cunningham said, "We have been accountable. Since September, we've been through seven audits," some ordered by Mr. Ruppersberger and the council and others by the school system itself.
Mr. Cunningham and Dr. Berger were restrained, but straightforward, in their response during an afternoon news conference.
"We find the council's action regrettable," Mr. Cunningham said in a statement. Nevertheless, "we shall comply . . . we shall comply because we have no option."
They said they would seek a budget supplement from the council, so they would not have to cut teaching positions allocated for next year.
But Mr. Gardina said later that the school system's chances of getting more money were "slim." He added, "Unless we see some serious effort on their part, we would not even consider it."
The school system's retirement incentive program -- started two years ago over the County Council's objections and a target of yesterday's budget cuts -- would have saved the schools at least $2 million, Dr. Berger said.
Salary savings from replacing older teachers with younger ones would have been used to hire more teachers, he said. But now, the schools will lose at least 50 teaching positions "that have already been allocated to classrooms" for next year.
Mr. Gardina denied that the council was hammering the school system. But, he said, "we tried to emphasize the points" that the council wants them to decrease the central administration and "demonstrate some kind of accountability."
Dr. Berger and Mr. Cunningham said they had explained the impact of the cuts to council members and had lobbied them up to yesterday.
The school board says it will have to renegotiate contracts with its four bargaining units because of changes in employee health insurance contributions that will now be necessary.
The council cut about $570,000 from the school administrative budget -- what it said was the equivalent of seven positions.
Besides education, the council's largest cut was $1.16 million set aside as a hedge against higher health insurance costs for next year, when a self-insurance system will cover 12,000 education workers and 6,000 general county government employees.