Hard budget times predicted Revenue increases in county outpaced by school needs

November 06, 1995|By Howard Libit | Howard Libit,SUN STAFF

Howard County government and school officials have warned that belt-tightening in education budgets over the past four years was just a prelude to even more austere measures next year.

"We've been stretching our resources to the limit," Raymond S. Wacks, county budget administrator, said during a forum on education funding Saturday at Wilde Lake High School at River Hill. "Where we go from here is the question that faces us today."

The increases in overall county revenues for next year are projected to be less than the minimum increases that will be required by the school system above its $230 million budget for this year.

Under state law, about $6.5 million more will be required for new student enrollment, and about $4 million more will be needed for the debt service on schools being built, but overall county revenues are projected to increase by only $7 million to $8 million, Mr. Wacks said.

Budget cuts being discussed by the federal and state governments likely will worsen the shortfalls, school and county officials said.

Neither Superintendent Michael E. Hickey nor Susan Cook, the school board chairwoman, cited specific targets for cuts in next year's budget proposal, but they said programs that don't directly affect classroom instruction likely would be among the first to go.

More than 200 parents, [See Budget, 5B] educators,

[Budget, from Page 1B]

elected officials and others attended the forum sponsored by the county's PTA Council and League of Women Voters.

They heard presentations on the school system's operating and capital budgets and a list of options if those budgets have to be cut, including year-round schooling as an alternative to new school construction.

The 37,500-pupil Howard school system is expected to grow by 10,500 students over the next 10 years, and school officials propose building as many as 14 new schools to accommodate that growth.

School officials already have conceded that the enrollment growth means any extra money for the school system will be used for the additional pupils, eliminating the chance for any new initiatives.

Ms. Cook, Dr. Hickey and County Executive Charles I. Ecker agreed that it won't be easy to make additional budget reductions, but they disagreed over how painful previous cuts have been.

"We're now doing a heck of a lot less than we did," Ms. Cook said. "There's a catch phrase about doing more with less. No, we're doing less with less."

Classroom programs remain the board's top priority, she said, but previous cuts "truly have had an impact."

Ms. Cook said middle school intramural activities have been eliminated, maintenance work and textbook purchases delayed and lunch prices and class sizes increased because of slowed budget growth over the last four years.

"We've had a real loss of flexibility," Dr. Hickey said.

But Mr. Ecker -- a former associate superintendent in the Howard school system -- disputed the impact of some of the cuts.

He attributed increased class sizes to policy decisions by the board rather than fewer dollars. "I don't see why class sizes should have increased because of budget cuts," Mr. Ecker said. "The same staffing ratios are in effect today as in the late 1980s."

Mr. Ecker also bluntly told school officials that they are going to have to find ways to build new schools for less money.

"I have been concerned about the cost of each additional seat. I think the cost has been excessive," Mr. Ecker said. "I think we do need additional seats, but they can be delivered at less cost."

Sydney Cousin, the associate superintendent for finance and operations, said the school system regularly builds new schools for less than the state average.

After years of fighting over education funding, county and school officials -- at the urging of a prominent local developer -- have agreed in recent weeks to create a joint planning group to discuss ways of balancing fiscal responsibility with educational quality.

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