Board near completion of budget

School panel putting finishing touches on FY '01 spending plan

OK expected Tuesday

Long sessions devoted to Hickey proposal of about $325 million

February 17, 2000|By Tanika White | Tanika White,SUN STAFF

After three exhaustive work sessions scrutinizing Superintendent Michael E. Hickey's proposed operating budget for next year, school board Chairman Sandra H. French has found areas where she believes the budget is lacking.

French said she would like to see more high school teachers. She also said she would like the district to replace performing-arts uniforms for students, and she wants the board, for the first time, to replace playground equipment that has been removed for safety.

"If we are removing equipment because it is unsafe, then we need to replace it with something," French said at Tuesday's final public work session.

The two-hour session marked the end of many long hours of head scratching, note scribbling and quick calculating for the five-member board, which received the document last month.

Hickey is seeking about $325 million in operating funds for fiscal year 2001, which begins July 1 -- an increase of more than $25 million over this year's budget.

The board held a public hearing Feb. 3 to hear community concerns about the budget and requests for additions or revisions. Each Tuesday and Thursday since then, the board has met to examine the 1 1/2-inch-thick document.

Each meeting has lasted at least two hours. Some have gone past midnight, school district spokeswoman Patti Caplan said.

The board will approve a final version of the budget at a 9 a.m. meeting Tuesday. French said members should reach a consensus by 1 p.m.

Even after three long work sessions, questions remain to be answered, she said.

In the section of the budget that deals with "operation of plant," for example, Hickey is proposing an increase of about $190,000 for communications -- from $860,200 to $1,049,750.

"Can you tell me what the breakdown is, and why the increase is as large as it is?" board member Stephen C. Bounds asked.

Request for vehicles

Bounds also wondered why the proposed budget calls for two more vehicles in the "warehousing" section of the document, if the district isn't adding two people to that department.

French estimated that she had spent, on her own time, at least 15 hours examining the budget, in addition to time spent calling staff members with questions or meeting with them to gain clarity.

"It's an exhaustive process," French said, "but one of the most important for the board. We have to make sure we're running an efficient business while accommodating the needs of the school system appropriately."

Raising concerns

Each board member brought up his or her concerns about the proposal, quizzing staff members about misleading typos, miscalculations, incorrect estimates and other problems.

An $800,000 increase for building repairs had some members concerned, until they discovered that the extra money was allocated to address equity issues -- and still didn't cover all of them. "We have a long, long, long list of contracted maintenance items that could easily double the amount listed here," said Associate Superintendent Sydney Cousin.

Installing computers

Board members asked whether enough money was included in the computer/electronic maintenance section of the budget, and whether funds had been budgeted to assist teachers in unpacking and installing new computers.

Board member Karen B. Campbell said many teachers had complained that they didn't have enough time or qualified help to set up computers delivered at the beginning of the school year.

Said French, "A board member's job is twofold: to look at what can be cut in order to transfer that money over to another area where there is a need."

Hoping against increase

French said she hopes that the board does not have to increase Hickey's proposed budget, noting that the county can fund only so much.

"We need to look and see what is not as crucial," she said. "I believe in fiscal accountability to the public, and I want as much money to educate our kids. I believe it's crucial to apportion that money in the best way possible."

The final budget proposal will be submitted to County Executive James N. Robey on March 15.

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