Lean budget is introduced for schools

Request forgoes executive pay raises and new programs

$389.6 million sought

Despite its frugality, plan still $20 million over current funding

January 11, 2002|By Tanika White | Tanika White,SUN STAFF

In anticipation of one of the tightest economies in recent years, Howard County Schools Superintendent John R. O'Rourke unveiled last night a lean spending plan for next year - adding no new programs and forgoing raises for himself and key aides - but still increasing last year's budget by at least $20 million.

When the cost of annual pay increases for teachers and staff is added, the increase could move several million higher.

The preliminary $389.6 million proposal for fiscal year 2003 alone represents a 5.6 percent increase over this year's budget. That's $20.8 million more than the school system is now working with, and close to $15 million more than O'Rourke asked for last year.

The county's share of the proposal would be $16.2 million, with the remainder to be picked up by state funding.

That figure does not include raises for teachers or other school system employees because those groups are in the middle of contract negotiations.

For that reason, the final figure could be considerably higher.

Last year's salaries added about $19 million for all district employees, said David White, the school budget director. Two years ago, the price was more than $17 million.

"Yikes!" said County Executive James N. Robey, when told of the increase, especially considering the inevitable jump when salaries are included. "It's going to be tough. It's going to be difficult to meet that goal. But I'm going to do my best."

O'Rourke said he, too, had done his best to cover the bare minimums and only a few necessary additions.

"This budget is conservative and acutely sensitive to conditions not only in the school system but also in the county," O'Rourke said at a news briefing before the budget's release.

The increase, then, is due mostly to simply maintaining the costs of a growing school district, O'Rourke said.

In addition to an estimated 1,300 new students the school district plans to enroll next year, the new budget proposal also includes salaries for 79 positions needed to staff the new Reservoir High School and Homewood School - the county's alternative learning center. Materials, equipment and supplies also are included.

To cover the costs of providing school bus service increases as student enrollments grow, an additional $450,000 has been included.

School officials expect health insurance rates for staff and teachers to increase by up to 16 percent next fiscal year - for an increase of about $6.4 million. Costs for workers' compensation have risen, requiring the system to increase its workers' compensation contribution by $700,000.

To continue the district's class-size reduction initiative - shaving student-teacher ratios to 19-to-1 in first and second grades - O'Rourke is asking for $500,000 to cover the cost of 15 teaching positions previously funded by the federal government.

Also, $900,000 for increased utilities costs has been added, O'Rourke said.

Associate Superintendent for Curriculum and Instruction Kimberly Statham will oversee the little additional funding added to the budget - for the district's growing English as Second Language population. Five-hundred thousand dollars is slotted for about nine teachers and 5 1/2 instructional assistants for ESOL.

Statham said the district has been unable to add any staff or instruction assistants in that area over the past three years.

"We are still trying to play catch-up to any kind of guidelines," O'Rourke said.

O'Rourke and Chief Operating Officer Sydney L. Cousin said that by keeping this budget to the bare bones, the district is pushing the limits of many kinds of everyday operations and maintenance.

This budget defers about $800,000 in building maintenance items.

O'Rourke also lamented the fact that the economic squeeze doesn't afford him the opportunity to expand the system's ability to survey parents, students and teachers in a formal way for feedback and critiques.

"We're looking for better indicators, more ways to get some sense of our community support, customer satisfaction," he said. "We have no provision in this budget for that."

He estimated that such a venture could cost the district $25,000 to $75,000.

"It was all we could do just to get to this budget," he said.

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