School budget vexes board $9 million shortfall ignites bitter battle over potential cuts

June 18, 1998|By Kris Antonelli | Kris Antonelli,SUN STAFF

Caught in a "crisis situation," the Anne Arundel County school board struggled last night to make up for a $9 million budget shortfall that could mean eliminating elementary summer school, reducing the number of guidance counselors and resource teachers, and slashing $1 million from school maintenance projects.

"If the elected officials don't want these programs, why should we have to be the executioners?" board member Thomas Florestano asked during the sometimes-heated discussion.

Florestano's comment highlights the bitterness between the county school board and the county executive in what has become the most fractious budget battle in the Baltimore area as partisans have traded accusations.

Last month, County Executive John G. Gary, frustrated and angry with a budget request 14 percent higher than the current budget, accused the school board of "padding" the request and claimed that Superintendent Carol S. Parham agreed to it in exchange for her contract renewal. School board members vigorously denied those claims and defended Parham, whose contract was renewed before budget negotiations began.

Two weeks ago, Parham complained that the $454 million budget the County Council approved is so skimpy it won't allow the system to "maintain its current level of programs and services."

She called Gary and the council "mean-spirited" for putting $8.5 million of school money in a special fund, to be released only if the board spends it to hire teachers and renovate Brooklyn Park Middle School.

This week, the union that represents Anne Arundel's 4,000 teachers, furious over the council's action on the budget, endorsed a slate of political unknowns in the November election.

Last night, the board went over a list of 43 of Parham's recommended cuts. They argued over high-minded ideals, but could not bring themselves to make cuts that will help them reach their $9 million goal, such as slashing about $1 million from maintenance projects. The maintenance backlog -- or list of school repairs -- is up to about $80 million.

"I just can't support this," said board Vice President Paul Rudolph. "We always take money out of the backlog and schools do not get the repairs that they need."

They also couldn't bring themselves to cut $1 million from the budget that covers textbooks and other materials for instruction, but they did vote for a $600,000 custodian hiring freeze, slashed $100,000 from custodian overtime and agreed to a $75,000 maintenance worker hiring freeze.

The board also discussed closing down Bates Middle School in Annapolis and moving those students to Annapolis Middle School. Both schools are under capacity. Florestano and board member Michael McNelly said one possibility would be to combine the two schools with two of the county's schools for troubled students.

"It would be a dumb thing to do," said Ken Lawson, associate superintendent for student services. "[Those students] have already proven to us that they don't function well with other students. So to pack them into a school with other students would not work out."

Although combining the schools would save money, it is unlikely that there would be savings in this fiscal year. State mandates require a yearlong process to close a school and the students would not be moved to the new school until the following year.

The board will vote on the final budget cuts June 29.

Pub Date: 6/18/98

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