County schools' cost cutter loses his job to belt tightening

Ecker eliminates post he created 7 months ago

February 13, 2002|By Jennifer McMenamin | Jennifer McMenamin,SUN STAFF

Faced with an ever-worsening budget crunch, Carroll County interim Schools Superintendent Charles I. Ecker laid off and eliminated the job yesterday of a man he hired seven months ago to find ways to cut costs and make the 2,800-employee school system more efficient.

Alan E. Small, Carroll's director of quality assurance, found out yesterday morning that his $74,400-a-year job was the latest casualty of a tight budget year amid talk of possible hiring freezes and furloughs.

"We have some budget problems this year, and we're looking at everything for ways to reduce the budget," Ecker explained. "You have to take the least of the bad things to do, the least of the evils. We're making some cuts in other areas that are very devastating. It wasn't an easy position to get rid of, but some of the alternatives would have been worse."

Ecker and his staff cut 30 percent from money that individual schools had not spent by Christmas and slashed 50 percent from similar unused central office funds. They let high-profile - and high-paying - jobs, including the assistant superintendent of administration and the facilities director, go unfilled to squeeze additional dollars from the current fiscal year's budget. They cut staff training and curriculum development money.

Those reductions made up the $2.2 million shortfall Budget Supervisor Walter Brilhart projected because of skyrocketing costs of health insurance, transportation and the needs of special education students who require services outside the county.

But since mid-January, employee medical claims have continued to climb, running about $375,000 a month over budget, and additional special education students have been identified who will need expensive out-of-county services. The combination forced Brilhart to prepare for another $1 million gap by July 1, when the new fiscal year begins.

Furloughing employees - or forcing them to take unpaid days off - will be used as a last-ditch effort. Eliminating jobs that are deemed nonessential was more palatable - depending on whose job is deemed dispensable.

"I really poured my heart and soul into that place," Small said in a phone interview after returning home from packing his office. "This is a hard position because when someone comes in like this, everyone perceives you as looking over their shoulder. But I was really building a team there and showing everyone how, working together, we could make things more efficient."

Small's job was one that he and others described as "the friendly side of internal auditing." It apparently was the only one of its kind in Baltimore-area school systems.

In his first seven months on the job, Small worked with the school system's maintenance department to organize the shop. He produced a report analyzing the costs and benefits of vending machines and commercial contracts in public schools - a topic expected to be a hot issue this legislative session in Annapolis. He had started helping Westminster Elementary conceptualize a plan to change the way its math curriculum is taught.

In an ironic twist that was not lost on Small, he was beginning to analyze, explain and resolve the ballooning health insurance costs that have pitched the school system into its current budget crisis.

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