Bowing to the fiscal and political realities of the times, Baltimore County schools Superintendent Joe A. Hairston detailed to the school board last night a proposed $806.2 million budget for the coming year that barely keeps pace with inflation.
While his counterparts in surrounding school systems have asked for 5 percent increases and called them conservative, Hairston said this is not the year to make large investments in computers or put new programs in place.
Instead, he is proposing an operating budget that is 2.3 percent larger than the $788.2 million the schools received this year.
"It's not a wish list," he said. "Sometimes we're wise to just be practical about things."
Board member Jean M.H. Jung said she was not surprised by the modest budget because "we don't live in a fantasy world." But, she said, "It was very sobering to have it in front of us."
Last year, Hairston's first as superintendent, he received a lecture in spending affordability from County Executive C.A. Dutch Ruppersberger -- and was publicly asked to cut $20 million from the request.
Knowing the state and county are experiencing money problems, with the economy slowing and unemployment rising in the aftermath of the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, "it didn't serve any useful purpose for us to get into that ballgame this year," Hairston said.
His request is the smallest for the county school system since 1998, when then-Superintendent Anthony G. Marchione asked for a surprisingly modest 2.25 percent increase.
The austerity budget did not go unnoticed. Ruppersberger applauded the superintendent of the 107,000-student system for asking only for what lean times dictate.
"My philosophy is you only ask for what you need," the county executive said.
Both men said they know the belt-tightening doesn't have to mean drastic measures like layoffs or spending freezes. It just means delaying some projects for a year or two.
Hairston believes each teacher should have a computer in the classroom to access student records, among other things -- a wish that would have cost $9 million to $10 million to fulfill. Instead, that will wait a year, he said.
The budget isn't completely bare. Hairston wants $3.8 million to fulfill the fourth year of the school board's contract with the Teachers Association of Baltimore County. He has proposed a spending increase of $15.2 million to pay rising health insurance costs. And he wants to spend $327,750 a year for the next three years to create an off-site location to back up essential school system data in case of a disaster. If the school system's records in Timonium were lost, there would be no way to pay people, he said.
The small amount of money being sought for new programs shows Hairston's priority is on early-childhood education. He wants to bring full-day kindergarten to Edmondson Heights and Victory Villa elementary schools, at a cost of $271,000, and to add prekindergarten classes to Chadwick and Winand elementaries, which would cost $163,000.
The school board will hold a public hearing on the budget at 7 p.m. Jan. 22 at the Ridge Ruxton School, 6916 N. Charles St. in Towson, before approving it next month. It then goes to Ruppersberger and the County Council for the determination in late spring on how much the school system will receive.