School upkeep gets low priority Baltimore Co. board makes no change in budget for maintenance

February 19, 1997|By Marego Athans | Marego Athans,SUN STAFF

There was a lot of bluster about school maintenance needs last night, but the Baltimore County school board couldn't bring itself to change the superintendent's proposed budget to make deteriorating buildings a high priority.

At issue is how much to increase the current $7.2 million maintenance budget -- while balancing employee raises and program needs -- at a time of high anxiety over decaying buildings.

In the past year, three schools have been shut down because of environmental problems and more than 1,600 children have missed classes and switched schools temporarily.

The school district has spent or committed itself to spending more than $1.5 million in repairs to those buildings, and the bills are still coming in.

But board members said County Executive C. A. Dutch Ruppersberger repeatedly has signaled that schools won't get much more of an increase than the $26 million needed for "maintenance of effort" -- keeping per-pupil expenditures the same as this year -- which is required for eligibility to receive state aid.

Superintendent Anthony G. Marchione presented his $630 million operating budget request in two tiers, a top-priority $26 million increase that amounts to the "maintenance of effort" spending increase and an additional low-priority $5.3 million increase that has little chance of being funded.

That format pleases elected officials because it allows them to cut the budget proposal without appearing to do so.

Included in the high-priority list is a $500,000 increase for maintenance; in the bottom tier is the bulk of the need: $2.36 million.

Student board member Rachel Brown proposed asking for the full $2.9 million and leaving it to the politicians to cut.

"Let them be the ones to explain Fullerton," she said, referring to an elementary school still reeling from air-quality problems that closed it for a week.

"In the maintenance area, it can't be status quo," board member Sandy Teplitzky said. "It's time for us to say 'maintenance of effort' isn't good enough this year."

Other board members agreed. But after a three-hour work session, the board couldn't find anything to cut from the top tier to make room for maintenance money. Already, some programs, such as multicultural education and music, are being cut. With one week to go before the scheduled budget adoption, the issue was left unresolved.

"I can't see any way that given the events of the recent past that we can look the public in the eye and say we knew we needed $2.36 million but we put it in the portion of the budget that we knew had little chance of being funded," said board member Robert Dashiell.

Much of the school board's wrangling over which tier should include which requests might be moot. Ruppersberger has verbally approved 3 percent raises for all employees, his spokesman said last week. That cost -- about $12.6 million -- would push the budget over the maintenance of effort by $2.1 million.

Dashiell wants to hire a consultant to review administrative positions above the level of principal with an eye on reducing waste and duplication. He said in an interview that he was concerned by the practice of creating new administrative jobs for teachers and principals due for promotions, and by the school system's reluctance to lay off or fire employees.

"Unless you leave voluntarily or die, you pretty much have a job forever," he said. "They find places to stick these people. We've got to get a handle on that if we're going to talk about trimming the budget."

After board approval, the budget goes to the county executive, then to the County Council, which has until June 1 to adopt it.

Pub Date: 2/19/97

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