Council seeks more money for schools

Members try to bridge gap between executive budget, board requests

May 11, 2000|By Larry Carson | Larry Carson,SUN STAFF

The Howard County Council's first crack at the school budget yesterday resembled a cautious trip to the dentist -- full of probing, pushing and irritation.

The council is looking for ways to bridge an $8.5 million gap between what the school board wants and what County Executive James N. Robey has proposed, and members are hoping to restore up to half of that by rooting through their $754.4 million spending plan for ways to save.

At stake in the deliberations are plans dear to council members' hearts -- plans to continue cutting class sizes in first and second grades, and to slow or reverse the flight of mostly white families from older schools with lower standardized test scores. Replacing old playgrounds, musical and athletic uniforms and other specialty expenses also may be at risk.

FOR THE RECORD - The location of Del. Frank S. Turner's district was incorrect in an article about the school budget in yesterday's Howard County edition of The Sun.
Turner is an east Columbia Democrat.
The Sun regrets the error.

To avoid that, council members poked and prodded sometimes resistant school officials, looking for ways to save money.

For example, what if the county's 3,000 teachers get a 5.8 percent pay raise instead of the 6 percent they expect? That would save the county $300,000 in local money needed to supplement the state funds that are providing 1 percent of the raise.

"We could give the teachers 0.8 percent, but they're going to blame us, not the governor or the state," said school Superintendent Michael E. Hickey. Such a move would wound teacher morale when the county is trying to boost it, board members said.

"It's nice to say we're fourth or fifth [in starting teacher pay] in the state, but that's not the driving factor," said Council Chairwoman Mary C. Lorsung, a west Columbia Democrat.

Councilman Allan H. Kittleman, a west county Republican, wanted to know if $2.4 million for vehicles, computers and large school maintenance projects could be moved to the capital budget, freeing those dollars in the operating budget.

Other members wondered if some of the county's match for an unexpected $1.1 million state grant to renovate Dasher Green Elementary/Owen Brown Middle School in Columbia could be delayed.

Councilman Christopher J. Merdon, an Ellicott City Republican, said the county could raise another $800,000 by increasing fees for building, grading, fire protection and electrical permits to cover their true costs.

"I don't understand it. There are huge gaps there," he said, comparing the costs of the permits and the fee revenues.

No new taxes, fees

But Raymond S. Wacks, county budget director, said Robey decided not to raise taxes or fees for next year because the economy is so good and the county is collecting record surpluses.

Merdon asked if new schools can be made less "grandiose" looking to save money. Howard's newest school buildings, such as Bonnie Branch Middle School, look like "Taj Mahals," he said.

Sydney L. Cousin, the school system's capital budget expert said attractive finishes on school buildings cost very little. "That doesn't cost anything," he said. "What costs is what you don't see."

Even the surprise money for Dasher Green has its drawbacks, because the county needs to find at least $750,000 in matching money to begin the renovations next spring.

The state approved the money a year ahead of schedule thanks to the influence of Del. Frank S. Turner, an East Baltimore Democrat who sits on the House Appropriations Committee.

Councilman Guy J. Guzzone, a North Laurel-Savage Democrat whose district includes the school, said it badly needs work.

The heating/cooling system "is horrible," Guzzone said. "There's a constant hum. It doesn't work."

The council made it plain that the performance review of the schools recommended by a citizens' school study committee is a high priority.

When board Chairwoman Sandra H. French said it might take most of the year to get a study under way, Councilman C. Vernon Gray, an east Columbia Democrat, reacted angrily.

"I hope I'm not hearing that you don't want this done," he said.

French denied that.

Teacher pay-raise issue

On the teacher pay issue, school board members took a dim view of withholding a sliver of the extra 1 percent pay raise for the county's 3,000 teachers.

Doing that would cause resentment that would be rekindled with the receipt of each check, French said.

"It's not the money people would be upset about," teachers union President Joe Staub said. "It's the expectation."

The 6 percent pay raise for teachers compares with the 21 percent increase in the superintendent's salary. New Superintendent John R. O'Rourke will make $180,000 after he takes over for Hickey, who is retiring. Hickey's salary was $147,760.

A second school budget work session is scheduled for next week. Final votes are expected May 22.

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