Final vote on budget postponed

Council attempts to find enough funds to reduce class sizes

`More we can do'

Panel, school board plan to negotiate agreement today

Howard County

May 23, 2000|By Larry Carson | Larry Carson,SUN STAFF

In a last-ditch attempt to find enough money to finish cutting elementary school class sizes next year, the Howard County Council postponed a final budget vote yesterday to negotiate an agreement with the school board. The vote was rescheduled for Friday.

It was the first time in at least 20 years that a scheduled final budget vote was postponed, county officials said, and council members conferred hurriedly in hallways and on the dais as the 11 a.m. televised voting session was to begin.

Four votes were needed to suspend council rules and schedule a new vote, and the council's two Republicans went along with the three Democrats at the last minute, though reluctantly. The GOP plan, to give schools more money by delaying part of the spending for an expensive new emergency radio system, would have solved the problem, they said. But the Democrats rejected that.

"I think there's more we can do," said Councilman Guy J. Guzzone, a North Laurel-Savage Democrat. "This is about just taking the time and looking at it again and accomplishing what can be accomplished."

Council members were upset Thursday after the school board tentatively decided that it couldn't find enough money in a $342 million budget to complete the reduction of class sizes from 25 to 19 children in all first- and second-grade classes - the county's educational priority. The board had asked for $35 million more from the county, but got $26.5 million from County Executive James N. Robey. The council restored $1.3 million early Thursday, but the board, meeting later, said that wasn't enough.

The board is to meet with council members during a work session late today and has scheduled a meeting Wednesday to re-examine the school budget, Chairman Sandra H. Frenchsaid."What's important is resolving the budget so that it works for kids," French said. "We'll see what we can do to make it work."

C. Vernon Gray, an east Columbia Democrat, said he was satisfied with the education money in Robey's proposed budget but would go along with the other Democrats out of courtesy. School board members caused the problem this year, Gray said, by asking for more than they had told Robey to expect.

Guzzone, the council's vice chairman, pointed out yesterday several places where he believes that more money could be found. The council will not approve $250,000 that the board wants for new computers for administrators, and the council has agreed to kick in $115,000 in cuts from the Department of Public Works for storm emergencies and road resurfacing, he said.

Beyond that, he said, he found $200,000 worth of potential cuts the board could make in its budget, for items such as new vehicles, warehouse supplies, new furniture and grounds-keeping equipment. That money could go to pay the $380,000 cost of finishing the class-size reductions and more, council members said.

The Republicans particularly want $155,000 restored to pay for five new guidance counselors, several council members said.

Council Chairwoman Mary C. Lorsung, a west Columbia Democrat, said: "I think this gives us some time to work cooperatively with the Board of Ed.

"We can do better for those who actually have to live with this budget - the students and teachers in the classrooms - not the Board of Education."

Republicans Christopher J. Merdon of Ellicott City and western county's Allan H. Kittleman thought that they had a better solution last week that was rejected by Robey and the Democrats - deferring part of the spending on the county's new $27 million emergency radio system.

"I feel uncomfortable about this," Kittleman said about delaying the vote. "I really believe in the autonomy of the school board, but the kids come first. It's worth taking a second look."

Merdon went along but later criticized Robey for insisting that the radio system contract with Motorola not be changed. Administration officials warned last week that delaying even a small portion of the funding could cause protracted contract negotiations, delays and higher costs. But the Republicans brushed off those warnings as unfounded.

"Our plan was clear. It worked and would give the board what it needed," Merdon said, calling the radio system Robey's "pet project."

The Democrats don't have a clear plan, Merdon said, adding that he and Kittleman went along anyway, partially because of Democrats' assurances of more money for guidance counselors.

Robey shot back later with a question. "Saving the lives of police and firefighters is my pet project? Perhaps one day they [Republicans] may need that pet project."

Several school board members said they are willing to try again.

Laura Waters, another member, said she wants extra guidance counselors.

But member Stephen C. Bounds said Guzzone's list of potential cuts might be tougher to achieve than they seem. Cutting $27,000 for a new van for a computer repair technician may make it difficult for that person to do the job. "To hire a technician without the van makes it kindasilly," Bounds said.

Also yesterday, the council approved 4-1 a bill aimed at reducing the number of false burglar alarms in the county. Kittleman was the dissenter.

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