Board hears from parents Frustration voiced over unresolved school budget battle

'We've got to be creative'

Support expressed for heat for after-class activities

August 06, 1998|By Tonya Jones | Tonya Jones,SUN STAFF

As the first day of school nears, and a sense of desperation over the school system's unresolved budget crunch deepens, school board members found themselves the target of frustrated parents yesterday.

The board devoted the first 2 1/2 hours of its meeting to listening to parents demand that money be restored for after-school activities buses, gifted and talented programs, heating and air conditioning after school, and other programs lost when the board sliced $9 million from its budget in June.

And when they weren't listening to parents in the public session, board members met for several hours in executive sessions to discuss contract negotiations with unions. The $454 million school operating budget approved by the County Council contains no money for raises, one extra pay period this year or other benefits the school system has promised its unions.

The County Council approved a $14 million increase in the board's operating budget for the current fiscal year over the last, but that was $9 million less than board members said they needed to "break even." The board has requested an additional $5.8 million from the council, but under the current request that money could not be used to restore any of the cut programs. It would be used for more teachers, administrative costs, transportation and other costs.

Rhonda Robinson said hearing news reports of the board's plan to turn off heat and air conditioning in schools as soon as classes end every day brought her to the meeting. Money to keep students warm or cool during after-school sports and club events will likely come out of parents' pockets, she said. They'll also foot the new $50 fee for sports and new fees for other activities such as band.

"I just don't see how they can save that much money by freezing them out," said Robinson, whose daughter plays soccer at North East High School. "I can [pay] the $50, but when I heard about them cutting off the heat and air conditioning, I decided I had just been sitting around long enough."

Robinson demanded that the board place any additional money it receives from the county contingency fund toward the heat and air conditioning and extra-curricular programs.

Other parents thought they had an offer the board couldn't refuse -- a teaching assistant willing to work for free. A Paris university student has offered to work for no pay as an assistant in a kindergarten class in the French immersion program at Crofton Woods Elementary School. The board eliminated the $8,000 position in its cost-cutting efforts, effectively cutting off the program for incoming students.

"Money doesn't always solve everybody's problems," said Jody Jacobs, whose daughter will be in third grade in the language program. "We've got to be creative."

But the program can't be saved so easily, said board president Carlesa Finney.

"There really is no free lunch," Finney said. "To give us a cost-free kindergarten aide may be a short- term solution, but we need to look at a long-term solution if we are talking about continuing this program."

Finney said system officials would look at the parents' proposal.

But any change in the board's request for additional money would require the board to hold a public hearing and a new vote on the issue. Board member Paul Rudolph said yesterday that he would rather not change the request and risk getting no money from the council when it considers the request Aug. 17. The next board meeting is scheduled for Aug. 19.

In the meantime, budget uncertainty has delayed teacher hirings and may have boosted the number of resignations in the last month by 25 percent over this time last year, according to David D. Lombardo, director of human resources.

"One of the reasons is there is a great concern about budget issues," he said. "We're hearing more and more that people are concerned about job security."

A two-week hiring freeze in June and July while the board sorted out the cuts came during a peak hiring time, and another 19 teacher positions hang in the balance in the contingency money the County Council will consider Aug. 17. That's the day new teachers are scheduled to report to orientation.

"Many for the best candidates have already been hired" by other counties, Parham said. "It's not the same pool that you have in March, April, May," she said, while avoiding calling the remaining candidates inferior.

Several parents yesterday demanded a simple but detailed explanation of where officials have cut money and why, and on what programs they would spend the $5.8 million from the county contingency fund.

Board members are reviewing a six- to seven-page memo that explains the situation and that could be released to schools and parent groups, said Gregory V. Nourse, financial director.

In short, the $14 million increase passed by the County Council covers $6.5 million for merit raises and step increases, a $3.5 million increase in health and life insurance costs, $2 million in private school tuition for special education students, $1.9 million for interest on construction debts and $400,000 for increased social security costs.

The approximately $9 million that was cut from programs was shifted to pay for: another $3.5 million in health and insurance costs, $2.5 million for the extra pay period that comes up once every 10 years, $1.7 million to cover state grant programs not approved by the County Council, $800,000 for special education and $300,000 in retirement costs.

Pub Date: 8/06/98

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