Board braced for `painful' spending cuts

School budgeters to recommend trims in program initiatives

Deficit near $4 million

Reduced class sizes in first, second grades could be delayed

April 27, 2000|By Tanika White | Tanika White,SUN STAFF

The Howard County school board is expected to receive recommendations tonight for severe cuts in programs, including efforts to reduce class sizes in first and second grades, replace playground equipment and band uniforms, and add guidance counselors at needy schools.

School board members said yesterday that they expect the recommended cuts because of County Executive James N. Robey's decision not to fund the district's full $350 million operating budget request for next school year.

The school board had asked the county for $35 million in new money to fund several new initiatives and increase teacher salaries. Robey proposed allocating $26.5 million to the school district.

"I just don't see how we can do them," board Chairwoman Sandra H. French said.

To meet those budget constraints, the district's administrative staff will present a list of proposed cuts at tonight's school board meeting.

Although they had not seen the complete list of recommendations yesterday, board members and Superintendent Michael E. Hickey said many of the initiatives, including most of the equity-related programs, will more than likely have to be cut.

"The list is going to be long and painful," said. board member Stephen C. Bounds. "Certainly everything new that we added is subject to being cut."

Bounds said that of the additional $26.5 million Robey has budgeted for schools, $16.6 million will pay for a 5 percent increase in teacher salaries, $8.4 million is set aside to provide teachers for the more than 1,000 new students expected next school year, and health insurance expenses have gone up, costing the district $1.9 million.

"So we're down to a minus $400,000," Bounds said, "before we've done anything new."

Bounds added that the district has to cover a $2.4 million increase in transportation costs because of new students and higher fuel prices, and must spend $1 million on equipment and supplies for the new Bonnie Branch

Middle School, scheduled to open in 2001.

"That's a deficit of almost $4 million," Bounds said. "There's clearly not enough there to pay for the things that we have to do. And all of the new things that we put in are all needs. Some of them addressed the equity issues that had been raised by the Leadership Committee [on School Equity] and others. But it takes money to provide those things. The overall math tells us there's a problem."

If Robey's budget proposal is approved by the Howard County Council next month, there are some opportunities for money-shuffling, Hickey said, that could add about $1 million to the operating budget.

But that probably wouldn't be enough to cover many of the new programs the board added several months ago, such as extra guidance counselors at needy schools, replacing playground equipment at older schools, rotating the replacement of old band uniforms and other equity-related plans.

"The council does have the option to restore some money," Hickey said. "In times past they frequently have, but I don't want to assume that."

Hickey and board members stressed that all staff recommendations are preliminary, and even Robey's budget isn't considered final until the council approves it in mid-May.

The council will hold a public hearing on the school budget May 6.

But the board is anxious, French said.

Class-size initiative

"What we're really worried about is whether the full class-size initiative will be able to be completed next year," French said.

The district has reduced class sizes in first and second grades in 17 elementary schools to 19 childdren per teacher. The board had planned to reduce class sizes in the remaining 20 elementary schools this coming school year.

Robey, through a spokeswoman, said he has provided enough money to complete the class size reductions and would need to hear more details about why the board thinks it will not be able to fund them.

Robey's budget defended

"The increase that he proposed for education is in line with discussions that he had with the board throughout the budget process," spokeswoman Victoria Goodman said.

"He promised to fund the negotiated salary increases and he did. He promised to fund class-size reductions and he did. If he had funded 100 percent of the schools' requests, there would have been nothing left for any other government agency."

Without full funding, Bounds said, the district is at a loss.

"I just don't see how the class-size initiatives are going to be completed like they were supposed to," he said.

"I don't know how we're going to do a lot of the things we wanted to do. We really felt like the resources were there. We thought that we submitted a responsible budget. This is going to be difficult."

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