Schools, county at odds over funds Board wants money meant for supplies

October 05, 1997|By Anne Haddad | Anne Haddad,SUN STAFF

To start school this year, fifth-grade teacher Vicky Wilmer spent $200 of her money. She will probably spend more before classes let out in June.

The Eldersburg Elementary teacher is typical of her counterparts all over Carroll County who buy their own posters, teaching aids and materials to enhance the basic supplies.

"I don't resent it at all," said Pam Alexander, another fifth-grade teacher at Eldersburg. "It gives me more choice of what I want."

The issue has surfaced as the latest example of the tension between County Commissioners and the Carroll County School Board. The commissioners have objected to the school board's otherwise routine request to transfer $90,000 from the instructional supplies budget to pay for an extra workday for teachers. The additional day was negotiated in the contract this summer.

On the premise of defending teachers who spend their own money, the commissioners have been skeptical of the request. School officials say the commissioners are playing politics with a normal bookkeeping procedure.

Many teachers say such purchases are their prerogative -- a way to personalize their classrooms -- not an obligation.

Alexander and Wilmer would love to have a petty-cash fund at the school so they could buy what they want and be reimbursed. But it isn't the first item on their wish list.

"I would spend it on teachers -- to bring in more teachers so that our [student-teacher] ratio goes down, and more teachers' aides," Wilmer said.

However, at hearings held by the commissioners on the school budget in the past few years, teachers and students have lobbied for more money to buy textbooks or supplies.

Commissioners W. Benjamin Brown and Richard T. Yates, who last month would not approve the budget transfers requested by the school board, said they were only raising a logical question based on those complaints.

"It's an ongoing thing, year after year, that teachers complain they don't have enough supplies," Brown said. "I think I have a perfect right as a commissioner to question that."

Brown was not swayed by the initial explanation: The school board had used a surplus of $641,000 at the end of the last fiscal year, in June, to purchase classroom materials, textbooks and equipment in advance, thus freeing some money in the current year's budget.

The commissioners decided to delay the vote until this week to give teachers a chance to tell county budget director Steven D. Powell whether they have a problem with the transfer.

"If the teachers are saying they don't have enough money for supplies, then I'm going to say leave the $90,000 where it is," Brown said. "If not, then I have no reason to deny [the school board's request]."

For school board President C. Scott Stone and teachers union President Ralph C. Blevins, the commissioners' objection to the transfer seems intrusive.

"It certainly hits me as micromanagement," Stone said. "I guess I could be somewhat cynical and say it appears Mr. Brown is posturing for his re-election campaign next year."

Stone said Carroll County's consistent standing as one of the two or three highest performing school systems on state tests indicates students and teachers have the materials they need.

"I think it's just a political move at this point," Blevins said.

"Certainly there are much bigger issues," Blevins added. "This is my third year of presidency, and I don't remember anyone yet complaining about not having enough materials they need."

Said Brown of school leaders, "I don't think they understand the commissioners' role."

The school system provides all necessary materials, teachers said, and individual teachers fill in with items that suit their teaching styles and methods, often reusing the materials each year.

Wilmer, for example, bought a few $6 wipe-off memo boards to help students who have trouble beginning writing assignments. They prefer to practice on the memo boards before putting it down on paper, she said.

Alexander buys oatmeal cookies or raisins for students to nibble during a test -- she calls it "brain food" -- and fresh fruit to use in a unit on fruit flies in science.

Statistics from the Maryland Department of Education show that the county generally spends more than the state average on instructional materials, even though overall per-pupil spending is lower than the state average.

For 1994-1995 and 1995-1996, Carroll schools spent $324 per student on instructional materials, compared with the state average of $274 during the same period.

Overall, Carroll spends $5,795 per pupil, compared with $6,337 for the state average.

Carroll ranks near the bottom in the state -- 22nd of 24 school systems -- in the number of staff per 1,000 students.

The issue has turned what is usually a routine summer vote into a drawn-out squabble.

Each year, the County Commissioners approve how much the school board can spend in every category.

This year, the budget category totals had to be adjusted by $827,463 in late June because of the contract the school board and teachers negotiated. The money was not added to the budget but moved from one category to another.

About half of the money is to cover an extra workday for teachers under the new contract. Teachers now work 190 days a year.

The other half is to provide something teachers have been requesting for years: a way to increase planning time for elementary teachers. Under the new contract, schools with ideas for providing more planning time will be able to apply for funds.

Pub Date: 10/05/97

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