School board weighs plans to reduce costs Effort is leading to 'ugly alternatives'

June 24, 1996|By Andrea F. Siegel | Andrea F. Siegel,SUN STAFF

With a flat economy providing fewer tax dollars, the financial noose is tightening around Anne Arundel County's school system, prompting unpleasant decisions on ways to economize that range from student activity fees to flow restrictors on water spigots.

"The future is not good. It is bleak," said Thomas R. Twombly, a school board member.

Over the next several years, schools can expect little more than the amount the state requires the county to pay for each additional student, said County Council Chairwoman Diane R. Evans.

But that required amount, which for example was $3.5 million based on 900 additional students for the coming fiscal year, is not enough to keep up with inflation, according to board member Thomas Florestano. The county gave $4.5 million for the 900 students.

The required amount is large enough to give school employees a 1 percent pay raise, but not to hire more teachers to keep class sizes down, update text books or tackle what is becoming a laundry list of maintenance and instructional problems.

"It is a problem which at some point very, very soon is going to catch up with us," said board member Michael A. Pace.

And the effort to cut costs leads to "some ugly alternatives," Evans said.

Next month, the school system will seek proposals for "cafeteria"-style health insurance for its 9,000 employees, said budget director Gregory V. Nourse.

He wants to know how much could be saved by offering employees partial rebates as an inducement to either drop school system coverage or switch to cheaper plans. The school system will pay $31 million of its $424.5 million budget for employee health and life insurance in the fiscal year beginning July 1, and union contracts are up next year, which means health care coverage will be renegotiated.

Evans said school officials also may "need to look at those courses that it is nice to have but you don't have to have."

Twombly is advocating electricity use reviews, as well as studying if it be would worthwhile to put flow restrictors on spigots to trim water and sewer bills.

County Executive John G. Gary said the school system would reap as much as $1 million in savings if it gives school vehicle maintenance and supply warehousing and related properties to the county.

Changes may be in the wind for students and communities, as well.

This year, for the first time, there are no summer school buses. For the second year, Anne Arundel will charge $22 for a drown-proofing class. It dropped driver education two years ago and has been charging materials fees in some elective courses.

Meanwhile, a school board committee is examining charging students activities fees.

"I would say almost anything is fair game," said board President Joseph H. Foster.

About one-quarter of Maryland counties charge student fees. Charles County, for example, charges a $10 music fee, a $50 a season sports fee, and is studying whether to resume an unpopular $50 annual student parking fee, said schools spokeswoman Linda Dent-Brown.

But Ned Sparks, executive director of the Maryland Public Secondary Schools Athletic Association, cautioned that fees must be high enough to be worthwhile without sparking a revolt. And somebody has to decide when to waive fees for a poor child.

Communities can expect to be asked to help out more.

"I think we have to provide some opportunities for the local communities to make some contributions in terms of labor if they want to have some other amenities," Foster said.

Asking parents for more time, effort and money will exasperate some, said Tim Williams, who heads the Citizens Advisory Committee for Central Elementary School.

But are parents being asked for basics or extras? Will savings parents create by, say, painting the classrooms, accrue to an individual school or the overall budget?

Meanwhile, there are still PTAs and clubs demanding parental attention and funds.

If parents buy computers and books, do interior painting and other volunteer work, and have PTA activities to pay for trips and performances, they are likely to wonder what taxes are buying.

"I guess you feel, well, I gave at the office," Williams said.

Other problems that have not been dealt with are festering and competing for scarce dollars.

"We will have to eventually look at closings -- when we get to the point where the building needs repairs, and it is not safe and adequate for students," Foster said.

The schools have fallen $65 million behind in maintenance and repairs. Each custodian cleans an average of 25,000 square feet a day, some 7,000 square feet beyond the industry standard of 18,000 square feet, said Ralph Luther, facilities chief.

The school system has lapsed from a timetable that would have it renovating schools when they are 40 years old to renovating them at nearly twice that age.

The system needs a one-time infusion of at least $7 million to bring books and other instructional materials up to standard, said Kenneth Lawson, associate superintendent for instruction and student services.

More than 5 years after the board decided elementary schools need more support staff, it has not filled all the positions it identified.

John Kurpjuweit, president of the Teachers Association of Anne Arundel County, warned that politicians' refusal to raise taxes for schools may backfire with lower home values and poor student achievement.

"If they want to have a minimal school system, they will have minimum results," he said.

Pub Date: 6/24/96

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