Parents offer ideas for school budget Drastic measures suggested in lieu of proposed cuts

They throng hearings

Some suggest salary freeze to save programs

February 06, 1996|By Anne Haddad | Anne Haddad,SUN STAFF

Trimming fat in the school budget may not be enough, not this year. With cherished programs on the line, many parents are saying it may be time for more drastic measures.

The 1996-1997 school budget proposal is being read, reread and aired in public like no previous one in Carroll County. More parents than ever are poring over it page by page, and showing up at hearings such as the one scheduled for tonight at 7 p.m. at Liberty High School.

The spotlight is on the budget because the proposed cuts in the $146 million plan go deeper than ever before and closer to parents' hearts, threatening elementary instrumental music, education for the gifted, advanced-level high school courses and small classes.

A hearing last month drew about 300 parents -- more than school officials can remember ever showing up for a budget hearing.

The parents don't like the cuts the administration has reluctantly proposed. But instead of urging the board to ask the commissioners for more money, as parents have done in the past, this year they are proposing their own ideas for rearranging the money and going as far as suggesting salary freezes.

"I'm a mom, I'm not a CPA," Spring Garden parent Ann Hintenach said at a public hearing last month. But she noted a $2.8 million increase in health insurance for next year and asked whether there wasn't some way to shop for a better deal.

She winced while suggesting that the county couldn't afford to pay school staff members the 3 percent cost-of-living raise the school board agreed to in contract talks last year.

"I think teachers are worth their weight in gold," Ms. Hintenach quickly added. "But the commissioners don't have any more money."

Several parents, including Ms. Hintenach, said they were torn, -- wanting to reward the teachers and administrators they cherish, but not at the expense of worthy programs.

At issue is the 3 percent increase for all staff members, which would cost $2.5 million, and more than $1 million in incremental raises that many will receive for gaining a year of experience.

Some parents choked back tears as they bemoaned the lack of state or county support for education in a county growing as quickly as Carroll, with an additional 902 students expected next year. A few parents supported raising taxes, but they were in the minority.

Programs vs. salaries

Others said they resented having programs like music and education for the gifted threatened while top administrators were earning $80,000 to $120,000 a year.

Gail Harry, a North Carroll Middle School mother, said she wouldn't begrudge school leaders their pay if it didn't mean sacrifices in the classroom.

"I don't mind a 3 percent increase," Ms. Harry said to administrators conducting the hearing. "But don't take from my children."

"I think the parents feel jammed, like they're against a wall," said Linda Murphy, president of the Carroll County Council of PTAs. "They're just trying to figure out what will affect their children the least."

School board members have emphasized that the 3 percent raise for next year was negotiated in good faith between them and the five employee unions. Board President Joseph Mish said the board has an obligation to try its best to live up to the agreement and to at least ask the commissioners for the money, even if they aren't likely to be sympathetic.

Salary freeze

Commissioner W. Benjamin Brown has said in a letter that a salary freeze for school employees could mean that none of the programs would be cut. He also said county employees have lived without raises and with much lower salaries than those of school employees.

Commissioners are not permitted to cut items line-by-line, but they do have control over the total school budget.

Neither the school board nor commissioners are permitted to unilaterally freeze salaries. Even though the pay increase in the contract is subject to funding by the commissioners, any change would require going back to the bargaining table.

"I don't know what the bargaining table will be like," Ms. Murphy said. The Eldersburg mother of two said a salary freeze isn't as simple as it sounds and could make it harder for Carroll to attract or retain good teachers and administrators.

"Every teacher who stands before a kid affects that kid. We have to be very careful that we don't begin to erode what we've worked so hard to get," Ms. Murphy said.

"When I go to state meetings and conventions and the DTC conversation gets around to our superintendent and how our central offices are staffed, I don't see the county as extravagant," Ms. Murphy said.

"I have no quarrel with that salary as long as the benefits filter all the way down to the student, and I think they do."

More expenses assumed

Ms. Murphy said parents were coming to realize that families might have to assume more of the expense of extracurricular activities. For example, the administration has suggested a $30 transportation fee for band members and athletes who regularly use buses to go to games and concerts.

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