Ruppersberger defends school budget to parents

County executive says spending for education will continue to grow

March 17, 2001|By Lynn Anderson | Lynn Anderson,SUN STAFF

Baltimore County Executive C. A. Dutch Ruppersberger met with a small but outspoken group of parents yesterday and reiterated the need to cut millions of dollars from the proposed school budget for next year.

Last month, the Board of Education approved a budget of $803 million, $20 million more than Ruppersberger had requested during private sessions with Superintendent Joe A. Hairston and board President Donald L. Arnold.

Ruppersberger is to present a county operating budget - including money for education - to the County Council on April 16.

FOR THE RECORD - An article in Saturday's Maryland section incorrectly reported that 100 computers are sitting unused at Ridgely Middle School because of a delay in wiring the school. In fact, the computers are in use. The Sun regrets the error.

At the meeting yesterday in County Council chambers, Ruppersberger robustly defended his budget projection for the school system and reminded parents that even if Hairston's proposed spending plan is reduced by $20 million, county spending on schools would rise by $25 million over this year.

"I don't like this perception of a cut," he said, sitting at the head of a conference table crowded with anxious parents. "There's not going to be a cut but an increase because I think the needs are there."

School officials and parents think education needs are greater, and they worry that Ruppersberger will make cuts in special education and technology, areas that have received a great deal of attention recently.

In his budget request, Hairston included $5 million to pay for 58 special education teachers and 96 full-time instructional assistants. Those positions are needed to comply with a staffing plan that was approved by the school board in November.

Yesterday, Ruppersberger told parents that he probably won't be able to fund the full amount. "I can't say we'll do everything you'd want us to do," he said. "I understand the issue. ... I'm doing the best I can."

Part of the problem is that federal and state authorities don't contribute the amount they should to cover the cost of educating children with special needs. As a result, local jurisdictions are forced to make up the difference, and few have the resources to do so.

Parents also don't want Ruppersberger to cut funds for technology.

Last year, Hairston ordered close to 7,000 computers at a cost of $11 million for schools around the county. This year, he wants to spend an additional $10 million to purchase computers for teachers so that they can work alongside students and share test data.

Despite questions about whether computers help children learn, parents in Baltimore County have praised Hairston's high-tech push. Ruppersberger said yesterday that he shares Hairston's goal of bringing more computers into the school system.

Parents worry that not enough money has been set aside to wire schools so that students can use computers.

At Ridgely Middle School in Lutherville, a project to wire the school has been delayed, said PTA President Margie Kay, and 100 computers are sitting unused.

Parents told Ruppersberger that library media specialists don't have time to be computer experts. Technology liaisons, teachers who are paid a small stipend to deal with computer problems, are also overworked.

Ruppersberger said he is committed to technology and that he wants to see all schools wired as soon as possible.

Keith Dorsey, a budget analyst with the county, told the group about a training program that will teach all school employees additional computer skills. About 7,000 administrators, principals, teachers and secretaries have been through basic computer training.

Karen Yarn, PTA president at Hernwood Elementary School, asked Ruppersberger whether there are plans to build another elementary school in the county's northwest area, where older residents are leaving and young families with children are moving in.

"We feel very strongly that we will need one," said Yarn, who added that the area's high concentration of foster-care children calls for smaller class sizes.

She requested a head count of pupils to prove that there are more school-age children in the area than county figures show.

Ruppersberger's chief of staff and education liaison, Dianne Gilbert, told Yarn that the county will build a middle school at Windsor Mill before it builds an elementary school.

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