School funding increase sought

Council to try to cut other parts of budget

May 09, 1999|By Larry Carson | Larry Carson,SUN STAFF

With detailed budget work sessions scheduled to begin tomorrow, Howard County Council members say they want to add from $600,000 to $2 million to the education budget -- mainly to preserve plans to reduce class sizes for young readers.

Coming off last week's public budget hearing that saw dozens of speakers plead for more education spending, council members appear ready to respond if they can find enough cuts elsewhere in the $683 million spending plan for the 1999-2000 fiscal year to make up the difference.

"When you're No. 1, it takes a lot to stay on top. You have to enhance what you have," said Chairman C. Vernon Gray, an East Columbia Democrat and 16-year councilman, who assured Thursday night's crowd that "we will be looking for money to add back to the budget."

His goal, he said, is to find $2 million more for schools above the $20.1 million in new money County Executive James N. Robey provided in his budget request.

Robey said, however, taking that much money from other areas of the budget will "cripple other agencies of the county government. It's easy to say `Fully fund the school budget,' " he said. "Where are the people who say, `Fully fund the police'?"

"People just want the best education they can afford," Gray said, noting that Howard County has the highest median household income in the state and a highly educated populace.

The council's task will be easier because of savings from rebidding health insurance, and additional federal and state money that, together, will provide another $1.2 million of the $4.8 million Robey's plan didn't fund.

School officials say they need everything they requested. "You juggle all the time. We put off, put off, put off," spokeswoman Patti Caplan said about less compelling items, like the $500,000 worth of school maintenance and repairs on Superintendent Michael E. Hickey's list of unfunded items.

Shared priorities

GOP Councilmen Christopher J. Merdon of Ellicott City and Allan H. Kittleman, who represents western Howard, want to add money for reducing class sizes and $100,000 for special education -- top priorities for many. Merdon also wants $86,000 for more athletic trainers at high schools. He would like to add perhaps $600,000 to the education budget, he said.

Others want more.

"I think if we could find $1.5 [million] to $2 million, there wouldn't have to be big cuts in those prime areas," said Mary C. Lorsung, a West Columbia Democrat.

Councilman Guy J. Guzzone, a Laurel-Savage Democrat, said volunteering two days a week at Guilford Elementary has shown him the need for more school services, especially smaller classes to help first- and second-graders learn to read. More individual attention "is truly necessary. I think all the schools need it," he said.

"Even if they got every penny this year, it wouldn't be enough," he said.

Robey's frustration

That's an attitude Robey sometimes finds frustrating. Fond of noting he's giving schools the largest increase in county history, he says school officials in Anne Arundel County have praised County Executive Janet S. Owens, although she's provided only 60 percent of their budget request, compared with his 76 percent. "I wish I could say it didn't bother me," Robey said.

Despite that, the tone of this debate differs greatly from last year's election-fueled bickering between then-Executive Charles I. Ecker, who cut the piggyback income tax instead of giving schools the money, and the County Council, which eventually put $3.5 million back into education funding.

Robey resisted pressure to reverse Ecker's tax cut but hoped the size of his allocation to schools would satisfy.

Unlike most jurisdictions, the Howard council has the power to add money for schools to the executive's budget request.

The council is scheduled to review the school budget at a work session on Wednesday. Tomorrow's meetings involve most of the other departments, including Police and Fire, Public Works, and Recreation and Parks. A formal vote to adopt a budget is scheduled for May 26.

Pub Date: 5/09/99

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