No surprises, council asks school leaders

Budget-season request by Lorsung is a result of last year's changes

March 22, 2000|By Larry Carson | Larry Carson,SUN STAFF

With the spring budget season looming, Howard County Council Chairwoman Mary C. Lorsung delivered a clear message to the county school board during its quarterly meeting: Please, no surprises this time.

Last year, after raising property taxes to bolster school spending, the council was surprised to learn that the board hired 20 more elementary school teachers with leftover money. Later, the council and County Executive James N. Robey were shocked again when the board abandoned plans for general redistricting that would have moved elementary children from crowded outlying schools to empty seats in Columbia -- the result of class reductions the council had approved as part of the budget.

"If you need to change gears, how about telling the other people in the car so we can hold on and not go flying through the windshield?" Lorsung, a west Columbia Democrat, said after the meeting at board headquarters on Route 108 yesterday.

School officials were sympathetic to her request and said they would try to keep her informed as the council reviews Robey's proposed budget in May.

"It's hard to anticipate what is going to be a surprise, but her request is certainly a fair one," schools Superintendent Michael E. Hickey said. Last year, he said, "We didn't do a good enough job" communicating with the council.

School board Chairman Sandra H. French said that as conditions change and new problems crop up, she too has trouble understanding how surprises sometimes happen.

"The superintendent wants no surprises, the board wants no surprises, but there are surprises," she said after the meeting.

Lorsung took some of the blame for being caught unaware last year.

"We were a bit naive. We didn't ask the hard questions," she said, noting that she hadn't realized the 2,000 empty elementary seats in Columbia might be absorbed by the two-year plan to cut first- and second-grade class sizes to no more than 19 children each. School officials apparently didn't realize it either, until well into the summer. The annual county budget is adopted by June 1 and takes effect July 1.

For the next fiscal year, the school system is requesting $340.6 million, with $35 million in new county funding that includes $16 million for a 5 percent pay increase -- the first installment of a two-year package designed to boost starting teacher pay from 10th-highest in Maryland to third.

During yesterday's discussion, school officials requested 98 new teachers costing $3.7 million as part of the continuing effort to cut class sizes -- including 11 extra reading teachers for middle schools, and 13 new teachers for ninth-grade social studies and science classes.

That prompted a question from Councilman Christopher J. Merdon, an Ellicott City Republican, about how many grades the class reductions will affect.

"Now it seems like the barn door is open. Are we trying to do it at every level?" he asked.

He and Guy J. Guzzone, a North Laurel-Savage Democrat, wondered why ninth grade was chosen for class size reductions. Why, Guzzone wondered, add science and social studies teachers when some ninth-graders are still poor readers?

The extra middle and high school teachers are meant to bolster efforts to prepare high school students for the state-required tests for graduation that begin in 2003, school officials explained.

"They're the first high school tests coming along," Hickey said about science and social studies, adding that "this is not an opening of the barn door."

Guzzone's worry is shared by some school officials.

"He's absolutely right. We need more reading teachers in high school. We're seeing more students entering our school system with reading problems -- older students," said Sandra J. Erickson, associate superintendent for instruction. At the same time, she added, students must do more essay writing for the new statewide tests -- meaning they're getting more reading and writing instruction anyway.

Ninth-graders need the most help, Hickey said, because it's a tough transition year and one that prompts some students to drop out.

In addition, 34 new teachers are needed for a central pool used to make sure no high school class ever has more than 34 children.

On another matter, French said the board is preparing to name a 10-member committee to study whether the five-member elected school board should be appointed, elected by district or expanded.

County Council members may each name one committee member; others will represent legislators, teachers and the board. The committee is to begin working by May and report by September so that any changes can be included in bills for next year's General Assembly.

Changes on the board were suggested after some parents complained that older schools were not treated fairly.

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