School budgets face the ax

Counties' officials say economic pinch will mean cuts

March 05, 2001|By David Nitkin and Stephanie Desmon | David Nitkin and Stephanie Desmon,SUN STAFF

Elected officials in suburban Baltimore are scraping rust off their budget-cutting knives as they prepare to fillet ambitious school spending plans they say fail to reflect a darkening economic forecast.

School boards in Anne Arundel, Baltimore, Carroll, Harford and Howard counties have in the past month approved budget requests that are as much as 11 percent higher than those of a year ago. The money is needed, board members say, for teacher raises, special education, computers and new classrooms.

The requests come as local governments are bracing for an economic slowdown that could erode recent growth in tax revenue. So, although many suburban school districts have avoided divisive battles for several years, this season is shaping up as a potentially nasty one.

"The tight time is a worst-case scenario," said Ronald A. Peiffer, assistant state schools superintendent. "In good times, it's usually very easy for everyone to agree. Part of what's happening right now is I'm not sure everyone believes the slowdown will be as long and as deep as [Federal Reserve Board Chairman] Alan Greenspan said it will be."

To some extent, budget deliberations are a dance that county councils and school boards perform each spring, a promenade preordained by state law. School boards rely on funding from counties, but county officials don't hire the superintendents who put budgets together. So it's common for appointed school boards to position themselves as proponents for children, leaving elected county executives and commissioners to make tough decisions.

"That's the way Maryland government works," said Stuart D. Berger, a former superintendent in Baltimore and Frederick counties and now a national education consultant. "The school system tells the government what they need. It doesn't mean they get it."

The slowing economy makes it a dangerous time for elected officials. Many of their constituents chose to live where they do because of good schools. Their property and income taxes pay for those schools. Therefore, it's politically risky to take actions -- such as cutting a proposed budget -- that could be seen as a threat to educational quality.

The next fiscal year begins July 1, meaning county executives and other leaders have time before they must decide how much to cut. So far, the rhetoric has been mild.

In Baltimore County, after the school board approved an $803.7 million operating budget last week without making $20 million in cuts requested by County Executive C.A. Dutch Ruppersberger, he and Superintendent Joe A. Hairston issued a joint statement stressing cooperation.

"The budget proposal ... reflects the school system's desire to give our students every available resource," the statement said. "We recognize, however, that the budgets for all county agencies -- including education -- are constrained by the county's spending affordability guidelines."

That is similar to the position taken by John R. O'Rourke, the schools superintendent in Howard County, where the school system has requested almost all the money available for construction projects countywide."[Howard County Executive James N.] Robey and I are committed to confronting difficult situations without contentiousness," O'Rourke said. "It's not going to be a fight, and it's certainly not going to involve any finger-pointing. We're talking about a finite amount of resources that have to be distributed across the county, and I recognize we're just a part of that county."

Three years ago in Howard, sign-waving children and as many as 300 parents appeared at rallies protesting threatened budget cuts. The county's response to the proposed schools budget this year could invoke a similar response.

Robey has estimated that $70 million to $80 million is available for all county capital projects in fiscal year 2001-2002. School officials have asked for $69.9 million. And the county has $50 million in capital requests from other agencies.

"There's a big dilemma right now, and how it's resolved is to be determined," said parent Courtney Watson, who has been lobbying for school construction funding. "I think the school system can cut some things, but they can't cut out 30 percent of the budget."

In Carroll County, officials initially thought this budget year would be relatively calm.

When interim schools Superintendent Charles I. Ecker began drafting his spending plan last fall, he asked county officials what kind of funding he could expect. That was a first, said Steven D. Powell, who has overseen the county budget department for 13 years.

The $187.7 million plan Ecker unveiled in January included money for opening Century High in Eldersburg and paying skyrocketing health insurance premiums. Absent, however, was a raise for employees. The school board was flooded with complaints from parents and teachers, who warned of a teacher exodus if Carroll could not raise salaries to match those in surrounding counties.

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