Panel suggests cuts in school construction Fiscal advisory board also calls for new district boundaries

35% budget reduction

Gary's goal to extend power over policies gets endorsement

March 26, 1996|By Scott Wilson | Scott Wilson,SUN STAFF

A fiscal advisory board gave County Executive John G. Gary more ammunition in his battle with the school system yesterday by calling for new district boundaries and a construction budget substantially smaller than educators have requested.

The Planning Advisory Board, appointed by the county executive to review capital budget requests and make recommendations to the county executive, endorsed school construction spending of $30.6 million for next year -- 35 percent less than the Board of Education asked for.

The recommendations, part of the board's interim report, would slash $8.2 million from four school construction projects already under way. In addition, the proposed cuts came with sharp words for school officials and a firm endorsement of Mr. Gary's tactics to extend his power over education policy.

"The Board continues to struggle with the inability of the Board of Education to recognize the long-term impacts of its decisions," wrote Newton Gentry III, the panel's chairman, in a cover letter to Mr. Gary. "We support your efforts to bring about greater accountability of BOE expenditure of county funds."

The re- port will be revised before Mr. Gary uses it to draft next year's budget, which he will unveil May 1. But it holds political value for the Republican executive at a time when he is fighting the Board of Education for greater control over its budget, which accounts for 57 percent of county spending.

In the past few weeks, Mr. Gary has pushed for state legislation that would grant him the unprecedented power to appoint school board members. They are now selected by the governor.

Mr. Gary also has lobbied civic groups and state legislators for their support for a plan to redraw school district boundaries, which he says would redirect some of the system's 72,000 students from overcrowded schools into an estimated 14,000 vacant seats.

"We maintain that major school construction should not be considered without a full and comprehensive redistricting plan using a greater percentage of available seats," Mr. Gentry wrote.

With its report, the board has weighed in on cost overruns in the education department's construction programs.

The Gary administration has criticized school officials for running $9.5 million over budget on four school construction projects last year. The advisory panel called for cutting funds for those projects -- Park Elementary, Broadneck High School, Meade Heights Elementary and Meade Heights Middle School -- to send a message to the school board.

"Hopefully, this gives them a chance to come up with a new program," Mr. Gentry said in an interview. "This sends a clear message to the board that it needs to address these cost growths."

School board members argue that project price tags have grown because the county government has waited years to fund them. For example, the Meade schools were planned in the early 1990s and now cost $3.6 million more than originally expected.

"They never fund projects when we ask them to," said Maureen Carr-York, a school board member. "They always tell us it's a pipe dream, or something like that. Then, when the prices go up, they blame it on us."

In all, the advisory board called for $165.3 million in capital spending for fiscal year starting July 1, up 28 percent from last year. The county will borrow $78.9 million to help pay for the projects, which include such big-ticket items as the County Courthouse and a new detention center in Glen Burnie.

The board proposed a cut of more than 50 percent in the Department of Recreation and Parks capital budget, the largest proportional reduction to any department.

Its members said the cuts were a sign of things to come.

"Our budget is just not going to be growing that much in the future," said George C. Shenk Jr., who is serving on the advisory board for the first time. "I don't think that reality has sunk in with the citizens."

Pub Date: 3/26/96

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