Describing next year's financial outlook as dominated by "certain growth, uncertain revenues," Howard County schools Superintendent Michael E. Hickey last night formally presented his proposed $241.9 million operating budget to the county school board.
While the school system knows it will be opening three new schools because of increased enrollment, the possibility of additional federal, state and local cuts make revenue projections for next year's budget "the most uncertain" of his 12 years as superintendent in Howard, Dr. Hickey said.
The proposed 1996-1997 budget represents an $11 million increase -- about 5 percent -- over this year's. Nearly all the extra money is earmarked for teachers, textbooks and supplies for the additional students, the opening of the technology magnet program and the new schools -- Ilchester Elementary School and Long Reach and River Hill high schools.
Board members generally praised the spending plan last night, noting that it showed fiscal restraint by not asking the county government to increase funding any more than required by state law.
"I am encouraged by the fact that the initial budget request is equal to what it was thought our revenues would be," said board member Stephen Bounds.
"It's not a pie-in-the-sky wish list. These are not the times for those kinds of budgets," he said.
Under Maryland's "maintenance of effort" law, the county government must increase its contribution to education by about $6.5 million next year to pay for the projected increase of 1,500 pupils to the 37,300-student system.
Dr. Hickey's budget proposal asks that the county increase its current $170.8 million contribution by about $6.6 million next year -- a figure that both County Executive Charles I. Ecker and members of the County Council said earlier this week they would try to meet.
However, Mr. Ecker has said he would like to see the state's maintenance of effort law changed to reduce the amount the county must contribute to education.
Dr. Hickey told the board that such wishes to limit the county's contribution make the revenue picture uncertain.
"We built this budget request on the good faith of the county's effort to fund maintenance of effort," Dr. Hickey said. "I have faith."
At the same time, debates in the federal and state government about spending have led to "a certain tone being set" toward reducing funding to a variety of programs, Dr. Hickey said.
Board members wondered whether they ought to start looking at ways to make up for lost revenue if substantial federal or state cuts are made.
For example, earlier this week Dr. Hickey said it was possible that the state could cut bus transportation funding to local school systems.
If that were to happen, he said, it might be necessary either to force more students to walk to school or to begin charging fees to those who ride buses.
A bus fee would require approval from the state legislature. It's just a vulnerable budget area, he said, not one that actually has been cut.
Regardless of whether more cuts are made on the state and federal levels, Dr. Hickey's budget proposal is likely to be reduced by the board because the state already has told the school system that its initial revenue estimates were $2.2 million too high.
Some areas of spending may also need to be trimmed because the proposal does not include salary increases for school employees.
Negotiations are just beginning between the employee unions and the school system, and the salary increases -- which last year totaled $6.3 million -- will be added to the budget in the next several months.
The board will hold a Feb. 6 public hearing on the proposed operating budget and then meet for public work sessions on Feb. 13, 15 and 20. The board is scheduled to adopt an operating budget request by Feb. 27 and send it to Mr. Ecker.
Mr. Ecker and the council are due to approve the county budget by the middle of May, and the board will vote on a final 1996-1997 operating budget on May 31.