Carroll County official calls school budget `pretty bleak'

System faces shortfall of about $1.7 million

January 06, 2002|By Jennifer McMenamin | Jennifer McMenamin,SUN STAFF

They called budget director Walter Brilhart the Grinch when he briefed the school board at its last meeting of the year on his preliminary outlook for the next fiscal year.

He wasn't trying to steal their Christmas goodies, to continue the metaphor from the Dr. Seuss children's book. Brilhart simply doesn't have much to bring.

"The budget is pretty bleak right now," he said in an interview. "We've got a $1.6 [million] or $1.7 million shortfall issue we're going to have to deal with, and that's without any salary increases. It's pretty solemn, isn't it?"

Carroll school administrators knew this year would be tight financially. It is the second year of a two-year plan to open two new high schools. Second-year costs for Eldersburg's Century High and startup costs for Westminster's Winters Mill High account for about $4.2 million in new expenditures.

But the financial outlook is worse than expected, school officials say, complicated by a slowing economy, fallout from the terrorist attacks Sept. 11, rising costs for medical benefits, and higher-than-expected raises in teachers' salaries.

"All of that has made the budget situation a little worse," Brilhart said. "That's reality now. But we forecasted long ago -- probably five or six years ago -- that this would be a tough year."

Interim Superintendent Charles I. Ecker will present his proposed budget to the school board at a work session Jan. 29. Several budget meetings throughout the county will follow: 7 p.m. Jan. 29 at Runnymede Elementary, 7 p.m. Feb. 5 at Century High, and 7 p.m. Feb. 27 at Westminster High.

The board is scheduled to adopt a budget at the final public meeting Feb. 27.

System in trouble

Ecker and his staff know the school system is in trouble.

They have estimated about $8.8 million in new expenditures that Ecker considers necessary for fiscal year 2003, which begins July 1. These include staff and supplies for the two new high schools, $2.5 million for increases in medical insurance, $360,000 for increases for property and casualty insurance, $250,000 for increased transportation costs, $200,000 for additional special-education costs and $100,000 for rising utility costs.

Ecker also wants to add $1 million to hire 24 teachers to keep up with growth in a school system that will have gained 550 new students during the 2001-2002 and 2002-2003 schools years without adding staff. And he'd like to hire 16 elementary school teachers to reduce class sizes in kindergarten through second grade, and five health teachers to increase planning time for elementary teachers.

The current budget estimate does not include money for staff raises, which will be added after union negotiations have been completed.

Gap of about $1.7 million

School officials do not know where the additional money will come from. They anticipate about $4.4 million in additional money from the county and about $3 million in additional revenue from the state.

That leaves a gap of about $1.7 million, without considering the cost of employee raises. For fiscal years 2001 and 2002, teachers have received a 5 percent pay raise while other school staff, from cafeteria workers to classroom aides, received 3 percent and 4 percent raises in fiscal years 2001 and 2002 respectively. Each 1 percent salary increase for all employees costs about $1.1 million.

The school system is facing a $1 million shortfall this fiscal year, and administrators have cut 30 percent from any money that individual schools have not yet spent.

"We went directly to supply areas as opposed to other operating areas," Brilhart said of the school system's "cost containment" measures. "We went after tangible things that have yet to be spent that we can get our hands on."

School officials hope that additional revenue from state and local government will materialize.

Or that the Grinch will appear with a burst of good will and a big bag of cash.

"I've been called the Grinch before," Brilhart said with a laugh. "I've been called much worse. It's doom and gloom. It comes with the territory."

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