Balto. Co. school board OKs $631 million spending plan Low priority is given to maintenance needs

February 26, 1997|By Larry Carson and Marego Athans | Larry Carson and Marego Athans,SUN STAFF

After three weeks spent wrangling over too little money in the school maintenance budget, the Baltimore County school board last night adopted an operating budget for next year that offers little change from the original proposal last month.

The $631 million spending request gives 3 percent raises to all employees, keeps most class sizes constant -- except for a slight decrease in middle schools -- and assigns relatively low priority to the bulk of the school system's maintenance needs.

But board members hope to make a statement that the maintenance requests are essential by attaching a letter to the county executive calling them a "special priority."

The budget will be submitted in two parts. The first is a top-priority list of $626 million in spending, a little more than the amount the county must fund by law to get state aid, and the maximum that County Executive C. A. Dutch Ruppersberger has agreed to fund.

The second part includes $4.7 million in spending that has little chance of being funded.

The board has struggled with the question of how to pay for building maintenance in a year when environmental problems have surfaced countywide and temporarily closed three schools.

Superintendent Anthony G. Marchione's request included in the top-priority tier a $562,828 increase over this year's $7.2 million maintenance budget, and a $2.3 million increase in the lower tier. Most board members agreed that the buildings needed all $9.5 million.

But, in the end, they were unable to find anything to cut from the top-priority list, which, in addition to the raises, includes $500,000 to hire teacher-mentors and $650,000 in grants to schools that perform well on state tests or identify special needs.

Board member Robert Dashiell cast the sole vote against the budget after he proposed an amendment, backed by Katharine Cohn, to move all the maintenance money into the top-priority list -- without suggesting any cuts in its place.

At the suggestion of board member Phyllis Ettinger, the board agreed to attach a letter calling the $2.3 million in maintenance money a "special priority."

Ruppersberger has agreed to exceed the $625 million "maintenance of effort" requirement by $1.25 million, but only for the purpose of funding employee salaries.

Another controversy over school maintenance erupted yesterday, this time in County Council chambers. The $1 million maintenance survey of the county's 160 school buildings, announced with fanfare last month by Ruppersberger, could be in trouble with the council. Three council members and the president of the county PTA council criticized the scope, spending controls and the time the survey would take at a work session yesterday. Its fate at a scheduled Monday night vote is uncertain.

Despite the apparent revolt, Ruppersberger spokesman Michael H. Davis predicted, "This thing will pass on Monday." He said the administration is "trying to do a rational, systematic review of our infrastructure." Failure to do the survey, he said, would increase chances of more problems.

Schools facilities chief Gene L. Neff told the council that he would use the money to hire a consultant to draw up criteria for evaluating each school's problems and listing them in order of priority. He said the work would take about one year, though the survey won't include asbestos problems.

He said school officials have surveyed the 160 buildings in a general way, listing the conditions of roofs and the age of systems, for example, compared to their normal useful lives, but said no detailed professional systematic survey has ever been done.

But PTA Council President Linda Olszewski told the council that parents want details, not just bland promises from school officials.

Parents are worried that the money will be wasted evaluating problems that school custodians already know about, while serious environmental issues, such as air and water quality and asbestos, will be ignored, she said.

Pub Date: 2/26/97

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