School board OKs budget of $609 million

Spending plan calls for 6.6% more than this year's

Goes to executive, council

Members also approve $70 million outlay for construction, facilities

February 21, 2002|By Stephen Kiehl | Stephen Kiehl,SUN STAFF

Emphasizing that more money is needed to achieve excellence in Anne Arundel schools, the county school board approved yesterday a $609 million spending plan for the next fiscal year and $70 million for school construction and facilities.

The budget -- 6.6 percent more than the schools received this year -- now goes to the county executive and the County Council. The schools will almost surely get less than they asked for, though some board members said they need much more.

"I understand our nation is at war, and there are public safety and public health issues that must be addressed," said board member Vaughn Brown. "But we need to not lose track of the requirements that have to be addressed if we're going to move to a point of excellence."

The board made a few changes in the budget recommended by Carol S. Parham two months ago, when she was superintendent. The proposals called for hiring 31 teachers and continuing a program of reducing class sizes for first and second grades.

Among the late changes the board made was adding $3.7 million to pay for raises for the school system's 8,400 employees. Last year, about $11 million went toward raises, but Parham's initial budget didn't include money for raises pending union agreements. The percentage of the raise will be determined in continuing negotiations.

The board also added $2.3 million to hire 55 teachers to maintain the average middle school class size of 29 students. The middle schools are moving to new schedules this fall that will increase class sizes if more teachers aren't hired.

Board members said they appreciate the significant funding increases they have received in recent years under County Executive Janet S. Owens, but that the schools need still more money to become among the best in the state.

"What has happened in these last four years is nothing more than a down payment," Brown said. He and others said the budget request for next year is the minimum needed.

"We know of the economic obstacles we are facing this year," said board member Michael J. McNelly. "We have a responsibility to put forth a reasonable budget and live within our means."

Despite some disagreement about how much money to ask for, the board unanimously approved the $609 million operating budget request. Last year, the board asked for $591 million and got $571 million. About two-thirds of the money comes from the county, the rest from state and federal sources.

The board had more trouble agreeing on the $70 million capital budget, a prioritized list of 34 construction and maintenance projects.

The most contentious item on that list was No. 19, requesting $450,000 for Ferndale Elementary School to replace its roof and deal with leaks in the building.

The school is the smallest in the county, with 150 children, and one of the oldest. The board has decided against closing the school, which is loved by its community. But the board has also rejected a plan to spend $9 million to rebuild the school.

"If we're not going to move the students out, it's time we fix the school," said board member Paul Rudolph. "We have 150 students in a school with moldy walls, leaking roofs and water in the cafeteria. It's time we do something about it."

Rudolph proposed moving the school up to No. 2 on the capital projects list to give it a better chance of receiving money from the county. But he couldn't muster enough votes.

He then proposed spending $40,000 to study what must be done to nearby George Cromwell Elementary School so that it could accommodate the Ferndale pupils. That also was voted down.

Rudolph and his allies were frustrated that the board continues to let Ferndale limp along without a clear future.

"There's a conception here that fixing the roof and water problem is going to make Ferndale an equitable learning environment, and if anybody on this board believes that, they need to go out there and look at the school," said board member Joseph Foster. "There needs to be a long-term plan for what to do for the students at Ferndale."

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