School budgets get final stamp

Additional pay boost for starting teachers fails to materialize

Operating budget up 10%

May 30, 2001|By Tanika White | Tanika White,SUN STAFF

The Howard County Board of Education formally set the dollar amounts for next year's operating and capital budgets yesterday, after weeks of back-and-forth among the board, the county executive and the County Council.

The operating budget for fiscal year 2002, beginning July 1, is $368.8 million, up $34 million, or 10.3 percent, from the current fiscal year's spending level.

Howard County school enrollment is expected to increase in September to 45,818, up 1,262 students, or 2.8 percent, from this year's student count.

The capital budget was set at $56.6 million, up $5 million thanks to unexpected state school construction aid.

The school board plans to use the extra money to implement new management programs at some of the district's lowest-performing schools, previously called "focus schools"; bring five high school data clerks to full-time status; begin construction on the county's 38th elementary school; and renovate some older schools.

The board also plans to increase spending on teacher salaries by 5 percent and had hoped to jump the starting salary for new teachers even more - but was not able to find the money.

Board members were trying yesterday to see if any more number-crunching could be done to give beginning teachers more money and be ranked higher among area school systems in terms of starting pay.

Howard County is the sixth-highest-paying school system in the Baltimore-Washington area, Associate Superintendent Sydney L. Cousin said.

Board member Virginia Charles wondered whether the optional four days that new teachers are asked to spend in training each year could be made mandatory, adding the $200 stipend they can earn for those days to the official salary.

Cousin said the budget would be increased only "nominally" by such a move, but Superintendent John R. O'Rourke warned the board against it.

"I can understand the intent," he said. "I'd just be very cautious about anything that would have the effect of reopening up a contract."

Adding mandatory days to the school year would require new contract negotiations, which isn't a wise practice just for salary-ranking "bragging rights," he said.

"You need to think of a contract as being something sacred," he said.

"This is not to have bragging rights," board member Sandra H. French said. "We want to be as competitive as we can with surrounding counties. We get e-mails from teachers saying, `I have offers from five other counties. Now you tell me why I should come to Howard County?'"

After much discussion, the board voted 4-1 to leave the starting salary as it is. Charles' was the dissenting vote.

"The majority of the board really wants to see an improved Step 1 [beginning salary]," French said. "Maybe it's not something we can do this year, but it is something we really want to look at in the next year."

Yesterday's meeting to approve the final budgets was a formality. The school board had preliminarily set both budgets May 17, approving many of the reductions O'Rourke had suggested for the operating budget in order to accommodate a shortfall in state and county money.

Some of the cuts included 14 new elementary school assistant positions that would have cost more than $200,000.

Board members also had hoped to hire an additional manager and supervisor for the assessment office, but cut those positions as well, for a savings of $115,500. Altogether, the board eliminated $6.29 million from the fiscal year 2002 operating budget request.

But the figures had to be approved last week by County Council members, who passed the budgets with a chorus of "yes, yes, yes, yes, yes."

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