Howard County government might not increase education funding enough to meet state requirements next year, an unprecedented move that would force the school system to cut up to $10 million from its proposed operating budget, Superintendent Michael E. Hickey said last night.
Dr. Hickey's announcement came just moments after the county school board unanimously reappointed him to a fourth four-year term.
With the reappointment, board members honored a promise they made last year when Dr. Hickey turned down the superintendency of a North Carolina school system to stay in Howard.
In the budget discussion, the superintendent warned the board that it must be prepared to make large cuts -- perhaps as much as $10 million -- to his proposed $241.9 million operating budget for the 1996-1997 academic year. He added that the tight budget will make it nearly impossible to shift funding among programs.
"We need to prepare ourselves for the reality that we may not have any flexibility," Dr. Hickey said. "Indeed, the situation may be worse than what we imagined it to be."
He said he first learned that Howard might not meet state funding requirements in a letter late last week from County Executive Charles I. Ecker.
Under the state law known as "maintenance of effort," county governments must spend at least as much per pupil as they spent the year before -- or they will lose some matching state education aid.
In Howard, that means Mr. Ecker must increase the county's education spending by about $6.6 million to keep up with the projected growth in student enrollment, or the school system will have to give up about $2.8 million in state funds, Dr. Hickey said.
Howard has never failed to meet the maintenance of effort requirement in the law's 10-year history, even in the lean fiscal years of 1991-92.
Since last fall, Mr. Ecker told school officials that he believed he would be able to meet the maintenance of effort requirements for next year. But in his letter, the executive said " he might not be able to live up to his earlier commitment," Dr. Hickey said last night.
He said he has not spoken to Mr. Ecker since receiving the letter.
Meanwhile, Mr. Ecker and officials from other counties are pushing the state legislature to reduce the maintenance of effort requirement. Under their proposal -- which has been supported by school officials in some counties but not in Howard -- counties would have to increase education funding by 60 percent of the amount currently required.
If the legislature were to pass the law, Howard schools could lose more than $2 million. But if the law isn't changed and Mr. Ecker does not increase the county's education funding by $6.6 million, the school system would not receive about $2.8 million in state funding in addition to the county decrease.
Last night's announcement is the latest budget problem faced by the school system.
The school board already has to cut about $2.2 million from Dr. Hickey's proposed budget because the state overestimated its funding projections for next year. And the board likely will have to cut even more to fund pay raises for teachers and other employees, which still are being negotiated.
The board's reappointment of Dr. Hickey to a fourth term had been expected for more than a year, despite the fact that his contract will not expire until June.
In January 1995, he was a finalist for superintendent of Wake County, N.C. schools -- a 77,000-student system that serves Raleigh.
But the Howard board quickly extended a contract offer to him for a new four-year term and Dr. Hickey -- who has been superintendent in Howard since 1984 -- withdrew from consideration for the North Carolina job.