Schools chief presents cuts list

O'Rourke proposes budget reductions of about $6.2 million

April 27, 2001|By Marian Morton | Marian Morton,SUN STAFF

Howard County Schools Superintendent John R. O'Rourke presented a prioritized list of potential budget cuts to the Howard County Board of Education last night, repeatedly declaring that he was not enthusiastic about scaling back the school system's budget.

"I don't want anyone to think that any of these items is a simple cut or an easy cut," O'Rourke said. "I will take full responsibility for this list and the priorities that are associated with this list."

The proposed cuts, necessary to compensate for a $5 million gap between County Executive James N. Robey's proposed budget for 2002 and the amount requested by school officials, total about $6.2 million.

The cuts included the saving of more than $600,000 by eliminating proposed staff positions, cuts in custodial and maintenance services, and recalculations of health and pension expenses.

Although O'Rourke emphasized that he supported integrated management systems for the county's poor-performing schools, those programs, which would have cost more than $300,000, were at the top of the superintendent's list of cuts.

"I frankly felt that we didn't have the proper support to earmark $338,000 for it," O'Rourke said.

The board unanimously agreed to transfer funds left over from the school system's 2001 budget and use that $1.8 million to "pre-purchase" items from the 2002 budget. Equipment, supplies and media centers for new schools, among other items, will be paid for with money from 2001.

In all, O'Rourke said, 42 items could be scaled back to reconcile the $5 million shortfall, but O'Rourke said the school system could cut from up to 76 categories for a total of more than $10 million, if necessary.

The board also voted unanimously to approve guidelines that would effectively eliminate loopholes in the county's moratorium on open enrollment.

The moratorium has been in place since last year, but parents have continued to use open enrollment for their children in county schools. The new guidelines eliminate open enrollment except in six distinct circumstances. Board members also clarified a few of the guidelines, which will not apply to children who were open-enrolled before the vote. In addition to the six original exceptions, the school system will allow pupils whose families move during the school year to remain at their current schools through year's end.

The board also clarified that the window for application for open enrollment, which is from May 7 to May 25, applies only to school employees who want to transfer their children to the schools where they work and to parents who want to use open enrollment to place their children at Stevens Forest Elementary.

Before the moratorium, parents could effectively hand-pick their children's schools as long as they could provide transportation to schools outside their districts and if they chose schools that were below capacity.

The board also heard a report last night from a committee formed to study the implementation of a new promotion and retention policy in elementary schools. Committee members recommended that the policy currently applied in middle schools be introduced in county elementary schools, with a few slight changes.

Under the committee's recommendations, elementary school pupils would have to be on pace with their grade levels in math and reading or face retention. The committee's report also recommends that schools develop intervention strategies to help children in danger of failing a grade.

Some board members expressed concern that the policy was too strict for elementary-aged students and that a new policy would not be effective unless every elementary school principal applied it uniformly.

"My concern with this policy is that too many kids may be retained with this policy," said board member Virginia W. Charles.

Sandra J. Erickson, associate superintendent for curriculum and instruction, disagreed, saying tougher rules are needed to prevent children from advancing before they are ready. "The intent of the policy is to bring a very focused spotlight on underachievement," she said.

The board also gave preliminary approval to a potential site for an elementary school, which would be the county's 38th, near Route 108 and Montgomery Road.

Public hearings on the building site and on the proposed elementary school retention and promotion policy will be held May 24.

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