Council gives schools money Contested $5.8 million was in a special fund

August 19, 1998|By Kris Antonelli | Kris Antonelli,SUN STAFF

The Anne Arundel County Council has added $5.8 million to the school board's account, but board members say it is unlikely they'll use that money to restore the middle school gifted and talented program or any of $9 million in student services cuts they made two months ago.

"This money is there for teachers, personnel and other things," said board member Joseph H. Foster. "The gifted and talented program is $950,000, a big-ticket item. It is going to be extremely difficult to find money for that."

Three months after the council voted to follow County Executive John G. Gary's recommendation and put $5.8 million in a special fund, out of the immediate reach of the school board, it voted 6-1 Monday night to turn over the money. The vote signaled a truce in the county's fight to hold the school board accountable for its spending in the face of state law that does not require such information sharing.

The school board will meet at 6: 30 p.m. today to vote on how it will use the money. The meeting is likely to run long, with parents and teachers planning to attend in hopes of influencing the board's decision.

"It's our power and privilege to decide what to do with the money," said board member Thomas E. Florestano, who attended the council meeting.

He said a priority is getting about $100,000 to pay for heating and air conditioning during after-hours activities at schools.

The board cut back programs in June, charging that Gary and the council had underfunded the schools, despite a $14 million increase in the schools budget. School officials have maintained that they needed at least $23 million more than last year's budget to keep student services at the same level as last year.

At least two dozen parents, students and teachers testified Monday night in support of the council giving the board the money. Frustrated and angry, some criticized the budget process and said they and their children were being used as pawns in a disagreement between two government agencies.

"What I don't understand is why you can't get any kind of resolution to this," Arnold resident Stephen M. Jones told the council. "That's how we would do it in real life. Why can't it be done here?"

Some students and parents pleaded with the council to give the board the money so it could be spent on the gifted and talented programs or to eliminate new athletic fees.

Despite no state law requiring her to do so, School Superintendent Carol S. Parham went to a recent council work session and explained how the money would be spent. With school starting in two weeks, she wanted to end the dispute with the council, which had been demanding that the school board guarantee that it would spend the captive funds on new teachers and not on raises for current teachers.

According to a memo she provided to the council and to parents, much of the money -- $2.1 million -- will be used to hire 60 new teachers and 23 teacher assistants. They are needed to fill vacancies in classrooms and in special education, reading and technology center programs.

The teaching assistants are also needed to fill vacancies and run the in-house suspension program. Because most hiring is done in the spring, school officials will be scrambling to fill those positions, Parham said, and picking from a smaller pool of candidates.

Another chunk of the cash -- $1.7 million -- will go to upgrading the school system's computer database that tracks attendance and school records. The rest of the money will be used for new personnel, including an enrollment verifier whose job will be to make sure that children attending county schools live in the county and not some other jurisdiction.

On Monday night, almost everything seemed up for grabs.

"Clearly you can't divide [$9 million] into $5.8 million," Parham told the council. "I intend to make some recommendations, but the decision will go to the Board of Education, who may go along with it or make modifications."

Although Gary introduced the legislation to release the money to the board, he has not given up his quest for accountability. Last month, he requested a state audit of the school system's books. During Monday's hearing, some council members continued to grill Parham and Florestano about how the money would be spent.

Councilman John J. Klocko III, a Crofton Republican, said that, although he has three children in county schools, he thinks the council's "primary commitment" is to make sure the taxpayers' money is spent in a "meaningful way."

Florestano told him he would just have to trust the school board: "We have to have confidence in each other. School starts in two weeks. We have got to move on this."

When it was clear that the legislation had enough votes to pass, Klocko voted against it.

"I am going to register my vote on behalf of accountability," he said.

Pub Date: 8/19/98

Baltimore Sun Articles
Please note the green-lined linked article text has been applied commercially without any involvement from our newsroom editors, reporters or any other editorial staff.