Officials warn school budget isn't affordable

Board approves plan $7.6 million above expected allotment

`Tough one to deal with'

March 01, 2001|By Jennifer McMenamin | Jennifer McMenamin,SUN STAFF

Carroll County officials expressed surprise yesterday over a $195.3 million operating budget approved Tuesday night by the Board of Education and warned that the county cannot afford it.

"That's going to be a tough one to deal with," said Commissioner Donald I. Dell. "I don't think we have that much money, but I'm certainly willing to look at it and see what they have to say. ... We'll definitely have to pick and choose from what they have."

At the end of a nearly four-hour meeting Tuesday night, the school board heaped almost $1 million in new staff positions and textbook money onto a budget proposal that had grown by $6.6 million since interim Superintendent Charles I. Ecker unveiled his preliminary recommendation seven weeks ago.

Comparing the exercise to shopping for a car and choosing among packages of optional features, school board members tacked on $861,600 in salary and benefits for 16 new teachers, two guidance counselors and two staffers to work with technology in schools. They also added $100,000 to buy textbooks to replace outdated ones.

Board member Susan Holt characterized the additions as "optional necessities."

As the Tuesday night crowd of more than 550 dwindled to a few dozen - and the hands of the clock in the Westminster High auditorium approached 11 p.m. - the four board members unanimously approved Ecker's amended budget and the board's additions. Board member Thomas G. Hiltz did not attend the meeting because he was overseas on military duty.

"This raises the budget considerably," board member C. Scott Stone said as he and his colleagues agreed to funding for the additional teachers as a way to reduce class size, "and it gives us something to fight for."

Added board President Susan W. Krebs, "I'm not saying we're going to get all the dollars to fund these things, but I think we can at least try."

County budget director Steven D. Powell said yesterday that Krebs' assumptions about the spending plan's affordability are correct.

"We've said all along that even getting [an additional] $4.5 million from the county does not seem likely given our ability to manage the current revenue stream," he said. "But it's definitely safe to say that we do not have another $7.5 million to spend."

The $195.3 million budget approved by the board includes about $7.6 million more than school officials have said they expect to receive from state and county tax dollars. Ecker and the board are asking the county commissioners for about $5.5 million "over and above what they indicated they could provide," said Carroll schools budget supervisor Walter Brilhart.

They're also hoping for about $1.9 million more than Ecker and his staff had expected to receive from the state. Most of that extra state money is contingent on the county funding the 4 percent raise for all employees that was approved by the school board Tuesday night.

This is the second consecutive year that Gov. Parris N. Glendening has offered to boost teacher salaries by an extra 1 percent in all school systems that raise teacher pay by 4 percent.

Powell said he expects to meet with Ecker's staff next week to discuss the budget and how far apart the county and school board are with their expectations.

Like Powell, Dell said he was very surprised by the budget, calling it "the biggest funding increase we've ever heard of."

Former Superintendent William H. Hyde requested a larger increase last year when he asked the commissioners for a $15 million spending increase - a jump of 8.9 percent.

That budget was pared by the school board and commissioners to a 7.6 percent spending increase.

The budget approved by the school board Tuesday night reflects a spending increase of about $12.9 million - or 7.1 percent over last year's $182.3 million budget.

"In light of this increased request, there's going to have to be some serious discussions," Dell said.

Commissioners Julia Walsh Gouge and Robin Bartlett Frazier did not return phone messages yesterday.

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