$4.7 million schools boost wins support Educators say they'd be content if that was added to Ecker figure

Total eyed: $200.3 million

1 1/2 -hour work session ends with compromise appearing possible

May 14, 1998|By Erin Texeira | Erin Texeira,SUN STAFF

Howard County school officials and members of the County Council moved closer yesterday to agreeing on education spending for next year, with educators saying they would be satisfied if $4.7 million is added to the budget proposed by County Executive Charles I. Ecker.

Early in yesterday's 1 1/2 -hour council work session on the school budget, discussions on specific figures -- ranging from adding as much as $7 million to as little as $1.4 million to Ecker's proposed $195.6 million operating budget -- remained tense. But by the end of the meeting, it appeared that a compromise could be worked out.

"You all are still looking for $9 million for the operating budget -- or have you come down to a more reasonable level?" Darrel E. Drown, a Republican council member from Ellicott City, asked school officials.

Said schools Superintendent Michael E. Hickey: "We're willing to look at a compromise. We're willing to look at the $4.7 [million]."

A $4.7 million restoration would mean that the school operating budget would grow to $200.3 million -- about $15.7 million more than the current $185 million. Many at the meeting, which was attended by school and county officials and a handful of parents, seemed to think that figure was possible.

"I think it was a great meeting, and the $15.7 [million] is a goal at this point," said Dennis R. Schrader, a Republican council member from Laurel who is considered a swing vote on the budget restoration issue.

Said Stephen C. Bounds, chairman of the Howard school board: "I'm hearing a willingness to do what we can. I'm encouraged."

The County Council likely will decide how much it will restore to the school budgets -- capital and operating -- at another work session with the school board at 7: 30 a.m. Tuesday, said Charles C. Feaga, chairman of the County Council and a Republican from western Howard.

"My guess is you'll see two or three proposals put forth by council members [Tuesday], and we'll take a vote," Feaga, who has proposed a $1.4 million addition, said yesterday after the meeting. "Between now and then, you'll see a lot of lobbying."

During yesterday's session, County Council members -- particularly members of the Republican majority -- asked school officials for detailed explanations of some items of the operating budget. They included a reading program for those whose literacy skills are below grade level, upgrades on outdated computer equipment and expansion of the technology magnet program.

The meeting marks the first time the two groups have discussed budgets for Howard County schools for next year since budget proposals released last month by Ecker drew the ire of school officials and many parents.

Ecker proposed a $195.6 million operating budget that fell $9.2 million short of a request from school officials. His original capital budget was $6.7 million less than one requested by school officials -- and it would cut planning funds for a $30 million high school.

For weeks, school officials have lobbied to have their budget requests fully met.

During a contentious hearing last week, more than 800 parents, students and school officials criticized Ecker's proposals and urged the County Council to restore education funding.

There was general agreement yesterday on additional money for the capital budget to pay for several projects, including the high school, renovations and additions to older schools and some new programs proposed by school officials.

School officials also asked for about $450,000 more in capital spending to renovate and add on to Columbia's Phelps Luck Elementary School.

Yesterday, school officials accepted Ecker's April 30 proposal to add $9 million to his initial capital budget figure. After making up for a less-than-expected contribution from the state, that money would increase Ecker's initial proposal of $27.3 million to $29.6 million.

The money would be used for renovations at Talbott Springs and St. John's Lane elementaries, among other projects, said Sydney Cousin, associate school superintendent for finance and operations.

Yesterday, council members also proposed an amendment, announced this week, that would return to the budget money for the Fulton-area high school that would open in 2002.

The amendment would postpone setting aside $1.8 million in planning funds for the school until next year, but construction -- costing about $30 million -- would be completed by 2002, council members said.

Pub Date: 5/14/98

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