After more than 10 hours of publicly poring over next year's proposed operating budget, Howard County school board members last night ended up where they began: There's simply not enough money to meet all the school system's desires -- or even needs.
In a process similar to rooting under sofa cushions for loose change, board members vainly scoured the $240 million budget plan to find a spare $1,000 here and there in hopes of giving something extra to favored projects and programs. They're set to pass a final operating budget request next Tuesday morning.
But the budget picture could get even tougher in the spring if the county's dire financial warnings come true and the board has to find millions of dollars in additional cuts.
"If that happens, we'll be scrambling in a major way," board TC member Stephen Bounds said during one of the three nights of budget work sessions that were held Feb. 13, Thursday and last night. "If that happens, we may have to look at extracurricular activity fees or increasing the charges for the community use of schools."
For now, board members did little more than raise questions during the work sessions about relatively small items in Superintendent Michael E. Hickey's proposed budget for next year.
More than three-quarters of the school system's budget is tied up in salaries and benefits for teachers and other employees, leaving little room for the board to shift funds.
Most of the rest of the budget is for such basic needs as replacing outdated textbooks, overdue maintenance work and outfitting a new elementary school and two new high schools scheduled to open in the fall.
Nevertheless, board members searched the budget for spare money with which to save a handful of administrative positions scheduled to be eliminated by Dr. Hickey next year.
Under pressure from county officials, Dr. Hickey has proposed cutting 18 administrative positions -- including combining the separate positions of central office math resource teacher and science resource teacher for high schools into a single position.
Board member Karen Campbell says that -- given the rising importance of math and science -- she wants to avoid combining the two jobs into one. She said plans to do that are "politically expedient" but don't make good educational sense.
Her aim now is to retain the jobs being done by those administrators -- even if another job title is used.
But Dr. Hickey emphasized that his decision to reduce those positions from full-time to half-time status to save money means the school system just won't be able to do as much as it wants.
"We are going to give up some services," he said. "Some of the services [of those administrators] will be lost or diluted as we spread their responsibilities over others."
For board member Sandra French, the tight spending plan made it next to impossible for her to find $40,000 in the $240 million budget to purchase uniforms for bands and choral groups -- and perhaps even for cheerleaders -- at the two new high schools.
Many students being redistricted to the new high schools "are leaving excellent, thriving groups," Ms. French said. "To send them to new high schools with zero in the budget is asking for too much of a sacrifice for these children."
Ms. French has a son who plays in the Glenelg High School band and who will be redistricted to the new River Hill High School next year.
She said in an interview last night that she initially was hesitant to seek the money for the new schools but that she believes that the issue of equity for music groups overcomes any appearance of conflict.
To find money, board members have spent the work sessions closely examining nearly every category, questioning even $1,000 increases in line items.
For example, last night Ms. French questioned some of the costs for the school system's Junior Reserve Officer Training Corps -- particularly mileage reimbursements for the program's teachers.
Board members also questioned whether money might be trimmed from high school graduations next year -- perhaps as much as $6,000 -- because only eight schools will have senior classes. The two new high schools will have only freshman, sophomores and juniors in their first year of operation.