Schools seek bigger budget

But county hesitates to fulfill increase, points to other needs

Extra $42 million wanted

Superintendent says money is necessary to stay competitive

January 24, 2000|By Jackie Powder | Jackie Powder,SUN STAFF

Anne Arundel school board members are giving high marks to Superintendent Carol S. Parham's proposed education budget, but the County Council chairman says it's unlikely that the county will be able to make education spending the top priority again, as it did last year.

The county awarded the school system an extra $30 million last year, as well as $40 million in capital funding to repair and renovate aging school buildings. It was the biggest increase in county education funding in at least a decade.

"It's probably going to be impossible to do that" this year, said Council Chairman Daniel E. Klosterman Jr. "We still have other problems here in the county, and we did give them a lot of money last year."

"A lot of council members felt we had to give them that injection to give them a running start," he said.

The emphasis on education last year fulfilled a campaign promise made by County Executive Janet S. Owens to put more money into county schools. Klosterman said Owens is committed this year to raising the salaries of county police and fire employees to bring them in line with neighboring jurisdictions.

Owens was on vacation and could not be reached for comment.

School board member Vaughn L. Brown said the schools need sustained support to continue a recovery.

"For the first time in quite a few years, public education needs were addressed more on a par with other needs for services in Anne Arundel County," Brown said. "Last year's response was the first step. It was a down payment on recapturing our children's future."

"It certainly didn't fix a full decade of neglect," he said.

In her fiscal 2001 budget proposal, Parham is seeking an additional $42 million in county money to pay for more teacher recruitment and retention efforts, continued systemwide computer upgrades, and school safety and discipline initiatives.

The $549 million budget request, which the superintendent unveiled at last week's school board meeting, is nearly 10 percent more than last year's.

Parham described the proposal as a realistic assessment of the system's needs and noted that she had cut about $20 million from departmental requests.

"As superintendent, my first obligation is to advocate for what the 76,000 students of this county need," she said.

The school board will vote on Parham's funding request Feb. 16 and will send an approved budget to Owens and the County Council. The council will adopt a budget by the end of May.

Board President Paul G. Rudolph praised Parham's proposal, but expressed doubts about the county's ability to fully fund it.

"I believe that the county executive and the County Council will do the very best they can for the school system," Rudolph said. "But they also have other obligations that were not addressed last year to give us the leg up that we hadn't gotten in previous years."

Board member Joseph H. Foster called Parham's spending request a "fiscally responsible" one that "takes into account the limits of the county and the needs of the school system."

"We understand they have to set priorities and have other competing interests," Foster said of the County Council. "But the quality of a school system is one of the main reasons for people to stay in the county."

The ideal budget would include enough money to reduce class sizes and provide more remedial services to struggling students, he said.

Board members are solidly behind Parham's initiatives to attract and keep teachers amid a nationwide teacher shortage. Her goal is to boost entry-level teacher salaries -- currently at $28,000 -- to more than $30,000.

Parham's other recruitment and retention proposals include offering $1,500 signing bonuses to special education, math, science and reading teachers, and hiring mentor/teachers who would help beginning teachers adjust to the school system.

Brown said the mentors are "absolutely critical."

"All of [the teachers] are so overburdened that the experienced teacher down the hall may not have the time to help the new teacher," he said.

Esther Parker, president of the Anne Arundel County Council of PTAs, also supported the superintendent's recruitment package.

"Everybody's competing for teachers across the country," Parker said. "It's a business, and we've got to be as competitive as other jurisdictions."

Some of Parham's other key budget requests include 55 teachers to keep pace with enrollment growth, 10 teachers to continue the reduction of first-grade classes to 20 pupils, and 19 reading teachers -- one for each middle school.

The superintendent is also asking for $300,000 to strengthen school security. The county Police Department is conducting safety evaluations of all schools, and Parham wants to earmark the money to make changes, based on the surveys.

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