School budget is debated in relative calm $453 million proposal drawing support from many county parents

'Initially well-received'

But county executive says he'll have to be 'bad guy who says no'

February 02, 1997|By Andrea F. Siegel | Andrea F. Siegel,SUN STAFF

Compared with the past two years, when droves of irate parents complained about what wasn't in the proposed Anne Arundel County school budget, last week's hearings were eerily tame.

"Maybe the superintendent is addressing concerns that have gone unanswered in previous years," speculated Vaughan Brown, Citizens Advisory Committee chairman for Meade Senior High School and a supporter of the superintendent's proposed $452.9 million spending plan.

"I think we are seeing a budget that at least initially is being well-received," Brown said.

By many parents, perhaps. They were supportive of many of the 247 jobs that Superintendent Carol S. Parham wants to add, especially the 23 reading specialists, eight counselors and seven psychologists.

But it is giving county government officials heartburn.

"Clearly, we are not in a position to increase anybody's budget by 7 percent," said County Executive John G. Gary. The current budget is $424.5 million. "I guess they felt they had to ask, and they'll let me be the bad guy who says no."

Gary said that after a bitter autumn fight between school and county officials over adding 20 teachers to relieve crowding, Parham's proposed budget holds no plan on how to continue addressing that problem. More than 100 classrooms were deemed overcrowded in October.

"[School officials] want to tell the public that we are not funding an adequate number of teachers. But that's not what they have in there. I kind of anticipated that I would have had a request for that this year -- instead I have gotten a host of requests for counselors and administrators," Gary said.

When she presented her spending plan in mid-January, Parham said she was working on a way to deal with crowded classrooms. Administrators say it is hard enough to align classes in elementary schools, where students do not arrive in bunches of 25, the average class size in elementaries. But in secondary schools, the issue becomes complex because students change classes and choose from different courses, changing the class sizes.

But Gary threatened to come up with his own plan to add teachers if the school board -- which will attend two budget workshops before deciding Feb. 19 on a budget plan to send to the County Council -- does not address the crowding issue.

That, the executive said, is more important than adding tTC counselors and administrators.

Parham's budget plan is some $9 million higher than the $4 million maintenance-of-effort increase the county is required by law to provide for schools.

Raymond Elwell, a county budget analyst who tracks the schools, said county revenue is expected to grow by about $20 million, and the school system is unlikely to get $13 million or more of that amount for its operations.

In theory, at least $6 million would be available from the $18 million surplus in the county budget,he said.

Additionally troubling to the county is that $5.9 million of the proposed spending comes from one-time revenues, Elwell said.

"If it is being used for a one-time purpose, there is no problem with it," Elwell said. But if schools count on receiving county funds based on these one-time revenues in a particular year, it threatens to create a gap in future years, he said.

That means the school budget Gary sends to the County Council is likely to be substantially lower than the one the school board will recommend. Neither plan includes employee raises, likely this year.

School officials hope the reduced acrimony directed at the board last week will translate into activists pushing harder for the schools at the County Council's budget hearings in the spring.

"We are just going to have to lobby it through," said school board member and Gary confidant Thomas E. Florestano, who sees the budget plan as a realistic request to meet instructional needs of the bulk of students. "What's the saying -- you've got to pay to play."

But some parents said it also reflects the board's compressed budget schedule this year, which left it getting copies of the budget toward the end of last week.

"The fight is not with her [Parham] this time, and not with the school board. It's with the County Council," said activist Kathie Allred, chairwoman of the Citizens Advisory Committee for Belvedere Elementary School. "We are going to skip the county executive's office because we feel there is not any support for funding for education there."

The board's positive reaction to Parham's proposed operating budget probably is because the spending plan reflects priorities of individual board members. Last fall, board members discussed with Parham what they wanted in the budget.

One group that has pledged to promote its cause is North County parents. While the creation of a Brooklyn Park Middle School is on the capital budget list, they want it to be the top priority, and they turned out in full force at both hearings last week. The project sits halfway down the priority list. Parents fear it may be delayed -- again -- if for no other reason than that the Gary administration and school officials are at odds over what to do.

"Even John Gary has indicated that a new middle school for our area might be feasible," said Kathy Pulz, president of the PTSA of North County High School. "You should take this as a sign from God. Even he must want us to have a middle school if he has loosened Mr. Gary's pockets."

Pub Date: 2/02/97

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