Schools' spending plan praised, but dismissed Two-tier budget takes heat off Ruppersberger

January 25, 1996|By Larry Carson and Mary Maushard | Larry Carson and Mary Maushard,SUN STAFF

Baltimore County officials like the way interim Superintendent Anthony G. Marchione approached next year's school budget, but that doesn't mean they will approve the $623 million he's seeking.

Just a day after Dr. Marchione unveiled his budget proposal, a county spokesman dismissed the nearly $25 million in programs -- including $8 million in employee raises -- that the superintendent laid out in the second tier of his split-level request.

"The second tier, to be honest, won't even be looked at," Michael H. Davis, spokesman for County Executive C. A. Dutch Ruppersberger III, said yesterday. "We won't have the money."

Dr. Marchione concedes that the county has fiscal limitations, but he insists that all his proposed programs are needed -- meaning that the school budget might trigger some battles in the coming months.

On Tuesday, Mr. Davis said that Dr. Marchione's budget request was "prudent," even though it included an increase greater than that sought last year by former Superintendent Stuart Berger. Dr. Berger's request, termed excessive, sparked months of debate that ended with the County Council cutting the school budget and hurling criticism at school officials.

Dr. Berger asked for a $45 million increase in one package, leaving the county executive to play the "bad guy" by cutting $25 million in requests that everyone knew the county could not afford, county officials said.

Dr. Marchione, by contrast, asked for a $48 million increase in two tiers. One was deemed necessary to maintain the level of services offered and to accommodate the nearly 3,000 additional students expected next year. The other was called "priority," but clearly less essential.

By submitting a divided budget, Dr. Marchione took the heat off Mr. Ruppersberger. "I've identified what we think should be the priorities," the superintendent said.

Dr. Marchione and his staff made other concessions to county officials. For example, they cut not only the seven administrative positions the council had requested, but also sliced 27 other jobs.

They also abandoned the early retirement incentive package that had angered council members because it committed the county to payouts for three years. The more limited incentive program approved this week by the school board will target administrative positions the superintendent wants to eliminate.

"We're pleased they're making the tough choices," Mr. Davis said.

Pleased, but still unable to pay for second-tier requests costing the county $24.8 million.

The schools will get $9 million more in county funding and $14.5 million more in state aid -- enough to cover the first-tier requests, including 235 additional teachers, the limited retirement program and increased funding for schools with lots of needy youngsters.

The county must provide at least $9 million more to meet a state law requiring the same per-pupil support next year as this year.

To afford that funding, the executive is cutting every other county agency except for police, Mr. Davis said, making extras out of the question unless circumstances change. Flat income and property tax revenues -- as well as Mr. Ruppersberger's determination not to raise taxes -- dictate that, Mr. Davis said.

Though conciliatory, Dr. Marchione said he did not design his budget request just to make county officials' lives easier. "We need $48 million [more]," he said.

The essentials "are not the whole story. I still want the discussion about the rest of the story," he said.

Dr. Marchione said county officials had talked to him about a maintenance-level budget. "But, obviously I could not put all the priorities in that," he said.

Dr. Marchione noted that county officials have considered the second-tier requests because they "are looking at the mentoring program." Mr. Ruppersberger has reportedly spoken with Gov. Parris N. Glendening about the plan to put mentor-teachers in schools with large numbers of inexperienced teachers, he said.

For $5 million, the program could be started in 44 county schools. But it might be scaled back, depending on how much state money the schools receive.

"We've certainly talked about the mentoring program, and I think there's a possibility of talking about other needs," Dr. Marchione said. "I'm being hopeful."

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