School officials defend actions Shifting of funds adds fuel to feud with county executive

July 28, 1998|By Kris Antonelli | Kris Antonelli,SUN STAFF

Anne Arundel County schools have been short-changed every year since County Executive John G. Gary took office and this year it all caught up with them, school officials say.

That is why the schools needed a $23 million increase in their budget and why, when they got a $14 million increase, county Board of Education members had to cut middle school gifted and talented programs, send resource teachers back to classrooms and slice millions more from their budget.

The board has nipped and tucked and borrowed and shifted funds to make ends meet since 1994, Gregory V. Nourse, schools financial director, said yesterday. This year, it ran out of places to cut, he said.

"We knew this was coming," Nourse said. "We knew that this was the last year we could make it on our own without additional money."

Nourse is preparing a four-page question and answer paper that responds point by point to Gary's claims that the board misuses its money. Gary also claims the board may have violated state law by shifting money among budget categories without County Council approval. The eight-member school board is to decide in the next few weeks whether to send the paper to parents.

Gary, who has battled with the school board over spending since he took office in 1994, asked state education officials last week to audit the local board. Ron Peiffer, spokesman for state Superintendent Nancy S. Grasmick, said yesterday that the letter calling for the audit, dated Friday, has not arrived in her office yet.

Yesterday, Nourse said the board has repeatedly cut programs and services, shifted money among accounts and taken money out of an account set aside to pay for increasing health insurance premiums to cover its costs. The County Council knew and approved, he said.

Lisa Ritter, Gary's spokeswoman, said the board created its own problems.

"Had they spent exactly what they have been given in the manner in which they were supposed to, they would not have had to do that," she said. "Once they have been funded by the County Council, they have no reason to dip into other funds."

Relations between Gary and school officials have been chilly since February, when the board sent the executive a $501 million budget request, a $61 million increase over the previous year. Gary cut that to $454 million, a $14 million increase, and the council approved in May.

School officials used the additional money to pay for health and life insurance costs, tuition for special education students who have to be sent to schools outside of the public system, annual merit and longevity raises, principal and interest on construction bonds and additional employee Social Security payments.

Nourse said that Anne Arundel schools budget increase of 3.1 percent was the lowest among surrounding jurisdictions. Howard County's school budget increased by 8 percent, for example.

"But more money does not mean a good education for the children," Ritter said. Anne Arundel is "clearly competitive with all the other jurisdictions" in school spending, she added.

Last week, Gary introduced emergency legislation to give the schools $5.8 million that is being held in a county contingency fund. That money is already earmarked to pay for new teachers and other programs and could not be used to restore any of the $9 million in cuts the board made last month, Nourse said.

Pub Date: 7/28/98

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