5-year plan sought for school funds Board says education will begin to slide without more money

Budget chief concerned

Increase for schools means cuts elsewhere, budget director says

January 07, 1998|By James M. Coram and Anne Haddad | James M. Coram and Anne Haddad,SUN STAFF

Carroll's budget director urged the County Commissioners and the school board yesterday to develop a five-year funding plan for holding the line on school spending without sacrificing quality.

Steven D. Powell said he is worried about finding the additional money the school board says it needs. And he is concerned about the way school officials are interpreting state figures that show Carroll ranks near the bottom in per-student expenditures in Maryland.

Although county revenue has increased slightly in recent months, Carroll cannot fund school needs without cutting elsewhere in the budget, Powell said. Every $40,000 saved could be used to hire a teacher, he said.

Fifty-three percent, or $86.7 million, of county revenues go to the school board's $149 million operating budget.

"If we're going to dedicate more resources to education, they're going to have to come from within -- within us and within them -- because over the years the revenue projections are not that great," Powell said.

School officials, although receptive to working with the commissioners, stand by their warning that schools will lose ground without a boost in funding.

"There comes a point -- and no one can identify it until we pass that point -- when the quality of our system will decline," said C. Scott Stone, school board president.

Commissioner W. Benjamin Brown agreed with Powell that a joint conference on school funding is essential.

"We are not on the same page now," Brown said. "We need to get everybody on the same page. If we're facing a crisis -- and Steve's numbers indicate that we are -- then we ought to find a way to start saving dollars today."

Powell said recent revenue increases have mostly come from local income taxes. The tax receipts are higher, he said, because some of the county's wealthier residents declared capital gains on some of their investments.

Capital gains -- the amount less expenses that a stock or other investment has increased in value above the purchase price -- are essentially "a one-time-only blip," Powell said.

"Within the current revenue structure, within the current tax structure, there's not a lot of room for growth," he said. "We need to look at where we put our money and where they put their money. We need to sit down and find out what are the goals of the Board of Education."

Powell proposed that the commissioners and the school board meet this month.

Stone said it would be more appropriate for a budget session to be held at the groups' quarterly meeting in the spring. The additional time would allow school and county administrators to share numbers and formulate a plan, Stone said.

Powell said it was essential for the commissioners, school board members and their staffs to meet soon. He said it will take time to agree on a five-year spending plan and that he does not want to visit the Wall Street bond-rating agencies in New York in the fall without one.

The county plans to sell long-term bonds to finance school construction over the next five years. Wall Street expects the county and the school board to have a firm budget agreement. Without one, the county's bond rating could suffer, Powell said.

The county's budget projections are so tight that a poorer bond rating -- which probably would drive up the county's cost of borrowing money -- could jeopardize the county's ability to pay for needed new schools.

The school board and the county "can slice and dice the numbers a thousand ways," Stone said, but the bottom line remains unchanged.

"The point is that in the next number of years we're going to add a significant number of schools, and that is going to require more staff," he said. "The absorption of these costs [will be difficult]. We have already lost $8 million in buying power just due to inflation."

Powell urged the commissioners and the school board to reach an agreement on how to publicize local results from the state's annual report card on education.

For the commissioners and the school board to air "conflicting numbers, all out of the same report, diminishes the credibility of all of us," Powell said.

He said Carroll's ability to combine low costs per pupil with high achievement scores is a cause for celebration.

"I don't understand from a business perspective why anyone would want to increase the cost per unit" when there is no loss in quality, he said.

School officials said they aren't so sure there has been no loss in quality. They noted that Carroll's performance on the Maryland School Performance and Assessment Program tests seemed to level off or decline in some fifth- and eighth-grade subjects this year.

At the same time, Carroll fell to second-worst in the state in student-teacher ratio, and its spending per pupil fell from 16th to 20th among Maryland's 24 school systems.

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