Schools look for savings in budget

`Very painful' reductions include books, staff jobs to make up $7.4 million

April 28, 2002|By Tanika White | Tanika White,SUN STAFF

Students might have to go without updated textbooks another year, two fewer custodians will clean up at the new high school and vacant teaching positions might stay that way a little longer. That is, if the county can't come up with millions more in funding for Howard County schools.

Of the money the Board of Education requested from the county government to fund programs, services and payrolls next fiscal year, County Executive James N. Robey said he can afford all but $7.6 million.

The gap forced Superintendent John R. O'Rourke to come up with a list of potential cuts in the proposed $398 million operating budget, which he presented to board members last week.

O'Rourke called the list "very painful."

"We recognize this is a very tough time for the county executive," O'Rourke said. "But this has been a very conservative budget right from the very beginning. We worked on it all year long with the knowledge that it was going to be a very conservative budget."

O'Rourke and his senior staff members came up with a list of 119 places the school system could possibly save money - in priority order - for a total of $7.4 million.

"There's nothing in this list that would be in the nice-to-do-if-we-were-able category," O'Rourke said. Everything on this list represents something we really, absolutely should be doing. This now is, frankly, painful."

When possible, officials pushed items related to instruction and instructional personnel to the end of the list, he said. The first two items - representing $12,000 - would affect the school board and O'Rourke's office.

The school system also is in the process of soliciting bids from HMO carriers to address the projected 16 percent increase in health insurance costs. When the selection is made, possibly this week, O'Rourke said, the savings could be from $600,000 to $1 million.

Other cost savings would come from reducing or delaying growth, additional services, or planned maintenance to existing materials, supplies or programs. For example, the system had hoped to replace three aging utility vans, but will save $23,000 by replacing two. Instead of 17.5 new custodial positions, there would be 15.5. Hundreds of thousands of dollars to replace textbooks in nearly every subject would be deferred for another year.

"It concerns us. This budget was very tight," said school board Chairwoman Jane B. Schuchardt. "These aren't things that are going to necessarily hurt the classrooms right now. But in time ... look at all those books."

O'Rourke stressed that nothing was carved in stone yet because the county's budget process has several more weeks before the final word is handed down.

On Saturday, for example, the County Council will hold a public hearing on the schools' budget proposal. The school board should receive a final figure from the council by mid-May.

"We have to do this the best way we can," Schuchardt said. "We don't have a whole lot of choice, unless the County Council comes back with more money for us.

"But if they don't, I have enough confidence in John and his staff that what they are recommending, they will be able to handle. They have made it clear to us that they can make do," she said.

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