Harford schools face budget shortfall

$5 million must be cut to allow increases in teachers' pay next year

April 06, 1999|By Lisa Respers | Lisa Respers,SUN STAFF

Harford County's school system faces a $5 million budget shortfall for the coming academic year, and parents are worried about cuts to programs such as music and sports.

As the County Council studies the school budget proposal -- and meetings between school officials and parents begin tonight -- some parents are bracing for cuts needed to offset teacher raises.

"I'm definitely concerned," said parent Sandra Weeks, who has two children in high school, one in middle school and one in elementary school. "I'm very pro-education, and I would hate to see worthwhile programs cut."

Controversy has swirled since last week's announcement that the county executive would not cover all of the $12 million increase requested by schools in the 1999-2000 budget.

Of the county's proposed $243 million general operating budget, $130 million was earmarked for schools. But school officials had requested $5 million more.

Salary package

At the heart of the shortfall is a $9.2 million salary package for school employees. Included in that package are increases intended to draw more teachers to Harford and make the county more competitive, said schools spokesman Donald Morrison.

"Right now Harford ranks 20th in the state in terms of teacher pay," out of 24 school systems, Morrison said. "We know that unless we bring teacher salaries in line, we are not going to have a level field."

Morrison also said that Harford schools face a cut in federal funding, from $3 million this year to $450,000 in the next budget year.

School board President Robert Thomas said yesterday that officials are pleased with the county's allocation -- the largest county increase in school funding since 1992 -- but will have to work to make up for the shortfall.

`A long way'

"No, it didn't meet our requested need," he said. "But the county executive's level of funding will certainly go a long way."

Thomas said school officials have made a list of possible cuts ranging from field trips to sports programs. He denied, as many residents have speculated, that the school board plans to dismantle elementary school music programs to save money.

"There is no support on the board to cut that program," Thomas said. "Had we not opted to go with the salary enhancement package we wouldn't have to make such deep cuts, but you can't fund something without cutting something, and we promised our employees an increase."

Deb Merlock, president of the Abingdon Elementary School Parent Teacher Association, said she and other parents are anxious to hear what priorities the school board will set -- and where cuts will occur.

`No change' expected

"I think that when you are on the outside of the school funding issue looking in, it's easy to say the county could have given more money," she said, adding that she expected "no change in our children's level of education."

Starting tonight, school officials will hold two public meetings to address concerns over budget cuts. The meetings are scheduled for 6 p.m. today at C. Milton Wright High School and the same time tomorrow at Southampton Middle School. Both are in the Bel Air area.

Pub Date: 4/06/99

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