County Executive C.A. Dutch Ruppersberger likely will not get the $20 million in cuts he is seeking in next year's education budget, the president of the Baltimore County Board of Education has warned.
"We have researched it, and this is what we need," board President Donald L. Arnold said this week, adding that members will discuss the issue at a meeting Tuesday.
A decision by the board to support the $803 million budget - a $77 million increase over this year - would be a bold show of support for schools Superintendent Joe A. Hairston. But it could signal a return to the frequent disputes between school and county officials that marked Stuart D. Berger's tenure as schools chief.
A spokeswoman for the executive said yesterday that if the school board doesn't cut the budget, county officials will.
"We're going to have to take a look at it to look at where we can make some reductions," said the spokeswoman, Elise Armacost. "That is a priority. ... Dutch was absolutely serious when he asked them to cut the budget."
Ruppersberger met with Hairston several weeks ago to discuss the superintendent's proposed budget and told him, "Let's get to reality." At that meeting, the county executive issued his request for $20 million in cuts.
No list of reductions
As of yesterday, however, board members said they had not received a list of proposed spending reductions from Hairston's staff. The board must deliver a final budget to Ruppersberger by Thursday. In Ruppersberger's six years as county executive, none of his proposed budgets has exceeded the county's spending affordability guide, which ties spending increases to growth in the county economy as a way to avoid tax increases.
Forecasters predict the county can add $67 million to its $1.2 billion operating budget without triggering a tax increase.
"The spending affordability cap is not an arbitrary number," said Armacost. "It is truly a measure of what we can afford. People with their household budgets wouldn't say, `Let's ignore our personal income because we must have a new van or a new heating system.' The county executive must set priorities based on finances."
The possibility of a confrontation over school funding reminds some observers of a time when Berger publicly sparred with Ruppersberger over the amount of money needed to run the school system.
In 1995, Berger proposed - and the board approved - a $599.2 million budget despite warnings from Ruppersberger that the county could experience a $27 million revenue shortfall.
One board member said at the time that he and his colleagues were "kid fanatics" and that they couldn't bring themselves to cut the budget proposal.
`The old days'
As a result of that tussle and others, Ruppersberger worked to unseat Berger. He was replaced in 1996 by Anthony G. Marchione, a longtime county educator who worked closely with Ruppersberger to produce budgets that were acceptable to both men.
The question now is whether Hairston will upset that arrangement.
Some say he could if he continues to push for an unrealistic budget.
"To submit a budget that is 75 percent of the entire county budget certainly smacks of the old days," said County Councilman Kevin B. Kamenetz, a Randallstown/Pikesville Democrat. "All it does is make the county executive out to be the heavy. It was a better system under Dr. Marchione."
Others argue that Hairston is nothing at all like Berger.
"This is totally different than the way Dr. Berger handled it," said County Councilman Stephen G. Sam Moxley, a Catonsville Democrat. "It is not an `in your face' deal. It is more like, `This is what I need to operate.' And Dr. Hairston has matched up his funding requests with educational needs. Dr. Berger didn't do that."
School board members say they'll hold their ground.
`Things we need'
They point out that of the $803 million Hairston has requested, about $507 million would pay for staff salaries. Nondiscretionary requests represent about $702 million of the budget.
Those requests include $5 million to hire 58 special education teachers and 96 instructional aides - positions the school system must finance and fill in order to comply with state regulations.
"If you look at how the budget is set up, it represents things we need very badly," said board member Michael P. Kennedy. "There's no fluff. ... There's not much of a fudge factor there."
Parent groups have praised Hairston's spending plan, which the superintendent says will provide cost-of-living raises for teachers, upgrade school technology, and implement new programs at struggling schools.
"This is an excellent budget that is oriented toward specific goals," said Teresa K. LaMaster, chairwoman of the Citizen's Advisory Committee for Special Education. "I want to support it 200 percent."
LaMaster and her group will meet with Ruppersberger and other parent groups, including the PTA, next month to discuss funding needs for schools.
Recently, the League of Women Voters of Baltimore County sent a letter supporting Hairston's budget to Ruppersberger.