School budget could tighten

County Council says it's reluctant to raise property taxes again

Robey is `concerned'

Funding for education could mean cuts in other areas

May 08, 2000|By Larry Carson | Larry Carson,SUN STAFF

Howard County school officials may be crying the budget blues over $8.5 million they want because County Council members aren't looking to raise taxes again this year to bail them out.

The council rode to the school board's rescue last year with a 2-cent property tax increase after the board said it needed more money than was provided for in County Executive James N. Robey's budget.

Council members later learned that the school board had enough money left over to hire 20 teachers without telling them.

This year, council members say, things will be different.

"I would have preferred if they added 20 new teachers, they would have shared that information with us," said C. Vernon Gray, an East Columbia Democrat. He said he opposes any tax increases this year and wants the council to approve the school budget in 15 parts, to limit the board's ability to shift funds from one use to another.

Western county Republican Allan H. Kittleman is also against increasing taxes, and Guy J. Guzzone, a North Laurel-Savage Democrat, said he wants to see strong evidence of school reforms before voting for more money.

"I'm not willing to throw more money at schools until we know where we're headed," he said, referring to the committee reports on how to make the performance of county schools more consistent.

Council Chairwoman Mary C. Lorsung, a West Columbia Democrat, is upset with the way the school board spent its money last year.

"It's their decision what they do with $300 [million] or $400 million," she said. "They make the choice to have athletic trainers at every ballgame. They make the decision to have a `principal without portfolio.' " she said, adding that she did not know what that job entailed.

School spokeswoman Patti Caplan said the job provides administrative support for the director of elementary schools. Budget cuts in the early 1990s cut central administrative staff severely, she said, so one principal per year is rotated as assistant to the director of elementary schools.

Although Robey says he is grateful that the council does not want to raise taxes, he's worried that members might be tempted to cut other parts of his proposed $754 million budget. In addition to schools, Robey has asked for money this year to hire 16 police officers, 15 firefighters, two additional workers for the county animal shelter and several people to help preserve aging neighborhoods by strengthening code inspections and hiring a planner to help with revitalization of the U.S. 1 corridor.

"I suspect they will try to find additional funds without raising taxes," he said. "I'm concerned they'll carve off pieces of something else. There's tremendous pressure [to fund schools]."

Robey and Raymond S. Wacks, his budget director, insist that the $26.5 million in additional school funding he has proposed is enough to achieve planned reductions in class size and pay other school expenses.

School board Chairwoman Sandra H. French said the board isn't expecting the council to vote for a tax increase, though board members say the schools need more money.

"We know the political realities. We know it was courageous of them to do that last year," she said. "Everything we put in that budget [now under consideration] is in direct response to community requests."

She said unexpected expenses have made things tighter. State officials discounted Howard's share of the much-promoted 1 percent pay increase for teachers because it is considered a wealthy county; covering that shortfall may cost Howard more than $200,000. Higher health insurance premiums and transportation costs will add $4.3 million in expenses during this year.

The council will make budget decisions during the next several weeks, after a series of work sessions and discussions with officials of county departments.

The budget is scheduled for a final council vote May 22 and will go into effect July 1.

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