Harford schools facing cutbacks

More than $8 million must be eliminated

April 16, 2000|By Jay Apperson | Jay Apperson,SUN STAFF

Looking to save millions of dollars because of a severe budget crunch, Harford County school officials are considering "painful" steps that could include imposing student activity fees, eliminating funding for interscholastic sports and ending plans to hire 30 teachers.

The proposals are among a citizen advisory panel's recommendations for reducing the school system's $236 million spending plan by more than $8 million.

The county school board is to meet tomorrow to discuss ways to reduce its spending and is expected to decide on cuts this week, allowing it to submit a budget to the County Council by April 25.

"The cuts that are coming are painful cuts that will affect programs and/or people," said Don Morrison, a school system spokesman.

School board President Karen Wolf called the likely reductions "excruciating," adding, "Anything that comes out of the budget is cutting into a need."

The need for cuts to the school system's proposed budget is a byproduct of the county government's bleak financial picture. While the state government and some other Baltimore area counties are enjoying large budget surpluses, Harford and other counties that have experienced rapid residential growth are forecasting budget deficits.

Facing rising costs associated with the influx of new residents, County Executive James M. Harkins proposed a $258 million county budget that included an increase in the piggyback tax rate for Harford residents.

Under the school system's Citizens Budget Advisory Committee recommendation, the system would cut the $1.67 million allocated for sports and other extracurricular activities. Those activities would become "self-supporting" through student fees of about $50 per child, through corporate subsidies or fund-raisers.

Cindy Mumby, co-chairwoman of the citizen's committee, said her panel made the recommendation because it doesn't want to cut into money that goes into classrooms.

"We're all very sorry to see this on the list, but it's not a basic," she said. "People feel passionately about extracurricular activities. They teach life skills. They're right for children. But they're outside the curriculum."

She said the school system should tap the enthusiasm for sports to help raise money.

Wolf, the board president, said, "Everything's on the table, but there are a whole lot of other things that would have to go before we would consider doing anything on extracurricular activities."

She also said that if fees are charged "across the board" to students, some of the money might be used for field trips. Spending on field trips, she said, is usually among the first items to be scrapped in a tight budget.

Wolf said it was unlikely that employees would be laid off.

The Harkins budget -- being considered by the County Council, which has until June 1 to pass a spending plan -- included $138.5 million for county schools. Additional state and federal money increased that figure to about $228 million, or $8.2 million less than the $236 million budget that the school system had proposed.

When the system faced similar dilemmas in recent years, the possible elimination of school sports or, as was the case last year, music programs was discussed. Officials often save money by reducing or eliminating raises for teachers and other employees, officials said.

Last year, facing a $5 million shortfall, the school system reduced spending on classroom materials by 25 percent to help balance the budget -- but, in the words of one principal, "not without pain."

"That was a move that had impact," said Stephen R. Williams, principal at Edgewood High School. He said schools had to make do with less money for textbooks, paper, computer software and science and art supplies.

"We're in a lose-lose situation with the budget every year," he said.

Past attempts to save money have compounded the challenge this year. Most county officials agree that teachers, whose pay has fallen behind many other counties, should receive a 5 percent raise.

Harkins, accepting the argument that the raises are needed to attract and retain good teachers, included money for the increases in his budget. On April 8, the school board voted to keep the raise for teachers and other school employees in its budget.

School officials, searching for cuts, started with last year's $218 million spending plan and, Morrison said, increased it only where essential -- and still came in $3.7 million over budget.

On Tuesday, the citizens committee delivered its recommendations to the school board. In addition to eliminating funding for sports, it suggested that "teacher specialists," who help implement curriculum and mentor new teachers, be reassigned to fill the 30 additional teaching positions that would be scrapped.

Among other measures, the committee suggests finding revenue, through tuition or other means, to make summer school self-supporting, and reducing county spending on special education and alternative education.

The school board's next budget work session is scheduled for 5 p.m. Monday in the auditorium at Fallston High School. Although no public comment period is scheduled, the session is open to the public.

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