School plan shift eyed

Tonight, board to discuss cut made to funding request

Initiatives in doubt

Budget director calls $20 million increase in budget enough

April 29, 1999|By Erika D. Peterman | Erika D. Peterman,SUN STAFF

Faced with a budget that is $4.8 million less than they asked for, Howard County school board members say they may be forced to scale back some initiatives such as smaller class sizes, special education improvements and alternative programs for troubled children.

The board will meet tonight to discuss possible cuts. County Executive James N. Robey recently approved $20 million in new money for schools next year, but cut $4.8 million from the board's budget request.

"The amount that the executive cut was, I would say, at least twice as big as I expected it to be," Karen B. Campbell, the board chairwoman, said yesterday. "That does, in fact, make it very difficult for us to enact all of the initiatives that we passed through."

Robey has rejected Superintendent Michael E. Hickey's request to undo last year's local income tax cut -- a move that could have put more than $2 million extra in the schools' budget.

County officials say the school system has a generous amount of money. County Council members also say that they have not been lobbied on the school budget.

Raymond Wacks, the county's budget director, said Robey feels the schools "have a very large budget, and if they look carefully, they ought to be able to do everything. They're getting pretty much everything they asked for."

In February, the school board approved a $302.8 million operating budget request, an 11 percent increase over this year's budget. That figure in- cluded an extra $7.1 million for instructional salaries. The county funds about 75 percent of the operating budget, and other money comes from state and federal sources.

Not much choice

Much of the increase has been aimed at improvements such as an ambitious special education plan and reducing class sizes in some schools.

School officials have discussed eventually reducing student-teacher ratios to 19-1 in some elementary school classes and cutting class sizes in ninth-grade math and English classes.

"That budget was such that there was not a whole lot of other things in there to cut," said board member Jane B. Schuchardt.

"As much as I would hate to see it, we might have to go into some of the new initiatives we have," she said.

Surprised by trim

Campbell and others said they were especially surprised by the cut in their request given the relative economic health of the county compared with past years. The school system has had several years of "maintenance" budgets that have not allowed for substantial improvements, board members said.

"Last year was the first time any program improvements of any magnitude, not to mention some more substantial salary increases, were included," said Stephen C. Bounds, vice chairman of the board. "Most of what's going to be affected are new things. What I heard County Council candidates touting as they ran were things like class-size initiatives. The very things that are now going to be affected were exactly the things that they expressed such strong support for as candidates not that many months ago."

Schuchardt said she will look to trim any areas that don't have as much impact on the classroom.

"It will be, as it always has been, that we will focus on less noticeable aspects," Campbell said. "After austerity budgets for the better part of the last 10 years, all of those cuts are really beginning to be noticeable."

Reductions, not eliminations

While she doubts any major, new initiatives will be eliminated, Campbell expects that they may have to be reduced.

"They're not going to have as big a bang as we hoped," she said. "The bang will be muffled, if not silenced, if we don't come up with a pretty good percentage of restoration of those funds."

The special budget work session will be held at 7 p.m. today in the board room at the Department of Education, 10910 Route 108.

Staff writer Larry Carson contributed to this article.

Pub Date: 4/29/99

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