School board approves budget it sought But funds only cover basics, members say

June 03, 1996|By Howard Libit | Howard Libit,SUN STAFF

The Howard County school board received exactly what it asked for from the county this spring -- and still ended up unhappy with its operating budget for the 1996-1997 school year.

The $240 million operating budget approved Friday is $10 million more than this year, yet does little more than provide money for new teachers, textbooks and supplies to accommodate the 1,800 additional students expected to enter Howard schools in the fall.

"The budget, while it looks like we got everything we wanted, is not everything we need," said Susan Cook, the school board's chairwoman. "What we have here is a budget that will cover additional growth -- and that's it."

But board members are not complaining too loudly, largely because they could have been forced to slash millions from their budget request, had the dire warnings issued by County Executive Charles I. Ecker this winter come true.

And board members are hoping that the goodwill they built during this year's squabble-free budget process will be something they can take to the bank next year as they lobby the county for education dollars.

"My hope is that our actions this year in submitting a budget that met the executive's demands will help us in the long run when we work with both the executive and the council," said board member Linda Johnston.

Friday's meeting -- which ended the annual education budget cy-cle with little fanfare or comment -- also included approval of a revised $34.5 million capital budget plan for the 1996-1997 school year.

The capital budget adds Gateway School to the list of schools to be renovated in 1997 and provides money to match a state technology grant for three Howard elementary schools.

In the operating budget request, the board received the exact increase in county funds that it requested -- $6.6 million, the minimum required by state law to pay for new enrollment and the most that Ecker said the county would be able to afford.

Yet even that amount was in jeopardy for much of the winter, as Ecker -- apparently aiming to set expectations as low as possible publicly warned the school board time and again that he might not be able to come up with the money, jeopardizing $2.8 million in matching state funds.

When Ecker came up with $6.6 million -- an amount that in prior years would have sent education advocates and board members screaming about the downfall of the school system -- he was seen, not as an enemy of education, but as a friend.

Revenue problem

"The numbers and the warnings were legitimate, because there is a real problem with the county's revenues," said Stephen Bounds, a board member. "If it would have been possible for [Ecker] to cut our budget without us losing the state money, I think that probably would have happened."

The County Council's hearing on the education budget in early May was the shortest in at least two decades, with only a handful of school, union and PTA officials testifying. In past years, they had to ask the council to restore money cut by Ecker, but this year they did little more than praise his decision and ask the council to follow his lead.

And at a work session with the school board in mid-May, council members praised recent administrative cuts made by the school system and emphasized this year's spirit of cooperation.

"Politically, I think we really need to work together," said board member Johnston.

In the capital budget, the board approved changes because the state recently decided to give Howard an extra $3.8 million for school construction. The extra money from the state allowed the board to decrease the amount of county bond funding needed for construction while adding renovation projects.

Alternative school

Gateway School, an alternative school for students with discipline problems or who are severely emotionally disturbed, was added to the list of schools to be renovated in summer 1997. The $600,000 renovation will cover repairs to plumbing, electrical and heating and air-conditioning systems as well as some cosmetic changes.

"The school is the oldest remaining facility we have in the county that has not received renovations," Associate Superintendent Sydney L. Cousin said Friday.

The other substantial change to the capital budget is $150,000 to match a state grant school officials hope to receive for technology. The money would be used to upgrade computer wiring at Dasher Green, Laurel Woods and Talbott Springs elementary schools.

The capital budget also includes funding to complete three new schools expected to open in fall 1997 -- a middle school on Gorman Road and elementary schools in Fulton and Ellicott City -- and an addition to Hammond Elementary School.

In other business, the board formally approved contract agreements with the school system's employee unions that were reached earlier in the spring. It also voted not to increase the starting salary for first-year teachers. The salary for a first-year teacher with a standard teaching certificate will remain $26,915 next year.

Pub Date: 6/03/96

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