President of Harford teachers union worries educators' 3% pay raise may not survive audit

March 14, 1996|By Sherrie Ruhl | Sherrie Ruhl,SUN STAFF

Harford County teachers are worrying about the potential impact of an outside audit of the local school system, paid for by a budget-minded county government.

Results of the audit, conducted by the firm of Coopers & Lybrand, are to be made public Wednesday little more than a week before County Executive Eileen M. Rehrmann's deadline for submitting her budget proposal for the next fiscal year to the County Council.

At stake in the countywide operating budget is a 3 percent across-the-board teachers' raise negotiated with the school board by the Harford County Education Association.

"My concern is that teachers are going to be caught in the cross-fire from this audit, and that's not fair," said Jean Thomas, the teachers union president.

If the audit indicates the school system is not spending every penny wisely, Mrs. Thomas said, she fears the county would cut funding to the schools for the 1996-1997 fiscal year, which could jeopardize the $4.8 million in raises anticipated by the system's approximately 2,400 teachers.

The $100,000 audit, ordered by Mrs. Rehrmann and approved by the council, was intended to uncover any inefficiencies in school system spending. It is the county's first outside audit of the system, whose budget accounts for about 55 percent of the local government's spending.

"This audit will show us where the money is being spent within the school system we've never known that before," said Councilwoman Susan B. Heselton.

County officials long have complained that they have little say over how school dollars are spent. Money is allocated into 13 categories, but the school board decides how the money in those categories is spent.

"We have designated money to be spent on classroom computers, but the school system has decided to spend it on VCRs and overhead projectors. I'm not saying schools don't need those things, but that is not what the money was for, and we have a responsibility to the taxpayers to know how our funds are being spent," Mrs. Heselton said.

The idea of letting politicians decide where the money goes concerns Mrs. Thomas. "Politicians make their decisions based on their personal biases and not on the facts; they don't have the years of experience it takes to decide where the money goes," the union chief said.

School board member Ronald R. Eaton said yesterday that he welcomed the audit but doubted it would uncover fat or change the way the school system is run.

"The community has a valid concern in how their tax dollars are being spent, but they get a tremendous bang for the buck," said Mr. Eaton. "Harford students do well on any test you care to name."

Harford schools rank 20th in per-pupil spending among the state's 24 political subdivisions, fifth in spending in the classroom and 24th in administrative spending, he said.

County spokesman George Harrison declined to say how much money Mrs. Rehrmann plans to earmark for education in her budget package, but said the school system remains "her number one priority."

"The problem the county has is that there are so many needs and we don't have unlimited funds," he said.

Mrs. Thomas noted that the county ended the last fiscal year June 30 with a $19.5 million surplus. "I've been lying awake nights thinking about all the different ways the county can get out of paying us this raise, and I can't find one," she said.

The school board has proposed a $195.8 million budget for fiscal 1996-1997, representing a 5.8 percent increase over the current budget of $185 million. It is the smallest percentage increase Harford schools have requested in a quarter-century, said Donald R. Morrison, the schools spokesman.

The school system is expecting to receive an increase of $3.5 million in the state contribution to its budget and would need the county to make up the remaining $7.3 million of the proposed increase.

The county is required to increase its school spending by about $3 million to sustain roughly current levels of services.

Pub Date: 3/14/96

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