Schools seek budget boost of $11 million Most new funds earmarked for system growth

Total is $241.9 million

Likelihood of state, federal cuts causes uneasiness for '97

January 03, 1996|By Howard Libit | Howard Libit,SUN STAFF

Howard County schools Superintendent Michael E. Hickey yesterday proposed a $241.9 million operating budget for the 1996-97 school year that does little more than provide additional money to pay for enrollment growth and the opening of three new schools.

And Dr. Hickey warned that uncertain revenue projections -- including the likelihood of large cuts in state and federal funding -- mean that his requested 5.1 percent, $11 million increase could be trimmed.

"It is a very, very uncertain, difficult year for us to build a budget in," said Dr. Hickey, who is scheduled to present his fiscal year 1997 proposal to the school board tomorrow night.

As an illustration of that uncertainty, Dr. Hickey suggested that potential reductions in state transportation aid could force the system to curtail eligibility for bus rides or charge fees to students who ride -- perhaps as high as $25 per month. Such fees would require a change in state law.

The budget proposal received a mixed reception yesterday from county political leaders.

They praised Dr. Hickey's efforts to devote more dollars to the classroom and reduce administrative spending. But they were unsure whether Howard can afford to increase its local contribution to education by $6.6 million when many county departments are being required to cut 12 percent over the next three years.

"If we give them $6.6 million, it would be the absolute upper limit," said Darrel Drown, chairman of the Howard County Council. "It would mean that everything else in the county would have to be cut."

State law requires that the county increase its contribution to education by about $6.5 million next school year to pay for a projected addition of 1,100 students to the system, which now has 37,500 students.

This year, $170.8 million in county funds will go to the school system -- nearly 60 percent of the county's overall operating budget. The county provides about three-quarters of the system's funding, with state and other sources making up the rest.

County Executive Charles I. Ecker said yesterday he will try to meet the $6.5 million requirement -- known as "maintenance of effort" -- but hopes that the state legislature will change the law this year to reduce what it requires from the counties.

"Between maintenance of effort for education, increased debt service and the cost of trash, we need $13.2 million more next year, but county revenues only are projected to increase by about $8 million," Mr. Ecker said. "There's going to be a big shortfall."

Last year, Mr. Ecker trimmed the school system's budget request by $4.4 million after months of wrangling between school and county officials.

Dr. Hickey said his budget proposal reflects the county's difficult financial picture. "Frankly, if [Mr. Ecker] gives us that [$6.6 million], I will be appreciative and say he has done everything he can," Dr. Hickey said.

But the operating budget proposal -- which still requires approval from the Howard school board, Mr. Ecker and the county council by June -- does not include cost-of-living increases for employees or longevity raises.

The school system is just beginning negotiations with employee unions and will add salary increases to the budget within the next several months. Each 1 percent salary increase would cost $1.6 million, and a longevity raise for eligible employees would add about $3.4 million to the operating budget. Last year's salary agreements totaled about $6.3 million.

While Dr. Hickey was hopeful that the county might provide extra money to fund salary increases, Mr. Ecker said that was very unlikely. He predicted that the school system would need to cut its budget proposal elsewhere if it wanted to give its employees raises.

The proposed budget mainly increases funding for the projected enrollment growth and to staff and supply the three new schools scheduled to open next fall -- Ilchester Elementary School and Long Reach and River Hill high schools. The highlights include:

* Nearly 90 new teaching positions and five media specialists.

* About $530,000 in new funding to begin the technology magnet programs at Long Reach and River Hill high schools, as well as nearly $400,000 to transport students from around the county to the two program sites.

* Textbooks and classroom supplies for the three schools opening next year and some purchases for the three schools scheduled to open in 1997.

* About $4 million in costs for employees' health benefits. In the current fiscal year, those costs were covered through savings that had accumulated in prior years, but in fiscal 1997 those costs must be paid through the operating budget.

* An increase of $400,000 in funding dedicated to building repair, bringing the total to $1.9 million. Such repairs have been deferred in past years when the school board has been required to cut the budget, but Dr. Hickey warned that cuts in that area are "reaching a point of diminishing returns" because many of the buildings are so old.

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