School costs to be shown

Interim chief's plan seeks $187.7 million for 2001-2002

Board to hear Ecker today

Carroll County

January 10, 2001|By Jennifer McMenamin | Jennifer McMenamin,SUN STAFF

Carroll's interim superintendent is expected today to unveil a $187.7 million budget proposal for the next school year that calls for modest increases in required expenses, such as opening Century High in Eldersburg, and trims nearly $3 million elsewhere to make up for a projected revenue shortfall.

"Our [spending] increases definitely outstrip the revenues," said Charles I. Ecker. "We're seeing how we can do more with less."

Although he would not release his proposed spending plan before today's Board of Education meeting, Ecker outlined the budget dilemma for the next fiscal year, which begins July 1.

The school system has $8.3 million worth of new expenses that Ecker considers non-negotiable and cannot be delayed: $2.5 million to open Century; $2 million for the annual salary step and longevity increases for Carroll's 2,800 teachers and support staff; $1.7 million for increasing health insurance premiums; $1.1 million for a 1 percent cost-of-living adjustment for employees; $600,000 for increasing transportation costs; $360,000 for the increasing cost of heating oil and utilities; and $50,000 for the internal auditor recommended by the grand jury that investigated the school system and consultants conducting a performance audit of the system.

At the same time, Ecker said, the school system expects $5.4 million more than it received last year.

To cover the nearly $3 million difference, Ecker said, the system will cut many of its temporary employees and consultants, reduce staff travel and shrink purchases of furniture and equipment.

The pinch will likely mean no raise for teachers - a disappointment that union leaders are complaining about because this is the second year in which Gov. Parris N. Glendening has promised to add a 1 percent salary boost to each county that gives teachers a 4 percent raise.

"We'll have to live with whatever we get and make the best of it. You play the hand that is dealt you and you don't blame the dealer," Ecker, a two-term Howard County executive, said of Carroll's county commissioners. "I've been in their position. I've been on both sides of the fence. And it's a shame we even talk about both sides of the fence because we're all in this together."

That outlook, however, marks a significant departure from the way Carroll schools officials typically have formulated their budgets.

Most years, the painstaking process begins with the superintendent asking for much more money than the county has. The school board grudgingly pares the request - and complains about it. Then, the county commissioners approve a budget several million dollars short of what the superintendent originally proposed spending.

This year is different.

Ecker began drafting his first Carroll schools budget by asking the county what kind of funding he could expect.

The operating budget proposal he will present today aligns exactly with the amount of money the county can afford - and offers optional additions if the county identifies additional funding.

Steven D. Powell said this has never been done in the 13 years he has been the county's budget director.

"We've talked about it informally under previous superintendents but never to this degree," he said. "This is very nice. ... It's very nice working with Dr. Ecker and his staff."

The operating budget, which covers everything from salaries and wages to the purchase of textbooks and supplies, is funded by the county and by state and federal government sources. It is distinct from the school system's capital improvement budget, which covers the construction and renovation of facilities.

The public can comment on Ecker's proposed spending plan Jan. 25 at Shiloh Middle School, Feb. 6 at Oklahoma Road Middle and Feb. 27 at Westminster High. The hearings begin at 7 p.m.

His first presentation occurs at 9 a.m. today to the school board at the Board of Education offices on North Court Street in Westminster.

Through the process, the school board can make changes and will adopt a proposal at the Feb. 27 meeting. The county commissioners can amend the spending plan before formally approving it in the spring.

Powell said additional money might become available. He characterized the superintendent's estimate of this year's state funding as conservative. A state commission evaluating education funding could make changes that would funnel additional dollars to Carroll.

"Over the next several months, we'll work with them to see where we can come up with money," Powell said.

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