Budget hearing for schools fails to draw crowd

Some attribute turnout to better communication, lean economic times

$7.6 million in cuts planned

May 05, 2002|By Tanika White | Tanika White,SUN STAFF

A relatively small group of Howard County parents and community members asked the County Council yesterday to try to come up with more money for schools next year.

About 45 people - many of those school system officials or employees - showed up at the George Howard Building in Ellicott City for a 75-minute hearing on the proposed operating and capital budgets for fiscal year 2003. In past years, similar school budget hearings have lasted four hours or more.

Although several budget items are facing the chopping block because of a gap between what Superintendent John R. O'Rourke says the schools need and what County Executive James N. Robey says the county can afford, the typical crowds of angry school supporters stayed at home.

Some said many stayed away because citizens are fully aware of the lean economic times the county is facing.

Others said it's because of the way O'Rourke is leading the system - doing his negotiating with county officials early so there's little need for public clamor near the end of the budget process.

"I like the way the superintendent handles this," said western county Republican Allan H. Kittleman, who remembers previous years - before O'Rourke's arrival - when kindergartners would come home with fliers in their backpacks urging parents to bombard the annual public hearing with public testimony. "I think the way he's doing things is healthier."

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 disparity 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 month.

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

When possible, officials pushed items related to instruction and instructional personnel to the end of the list, he said.

Some new instructional positions, however, were not spared, prompting many representatives from the Special Education Citizen's Advisory Committee to line up at the council's podium.

"The line-item cuts recommended by the superintendent to the board of education in response to the executive's proposal would have special education apparently bearing about $770,000," said Ben Dorman, committee co-chairman.

"The cuts that are proposed are, for the first time, in actual teaching positions," Dorman said.

Anne Long, committee co-chairwoman, said the group was surprised and disappointed to realize that special education might take such a hit, "particularly when one considers that the number of students who receive special education services is growing ... ."

Members of the county's African-American community also were represented at yesterday's meeting. Many wanted to see O'Rourke's proposed budget fully funded to speed up the system's plan to eliminate the so-called achievement gap between groups of county students and state standards.

"Adequate funding is critical to the delivery of quality education and the elimination of resource inequities that exist in some schools in Howard County," said Natalie Woodson, chairwoman of the education committee of the NAACP's Howard branch.

After the meeting, O'Rourke said he was optimistic that the county might be able to restore some of the money to the proposed budget, "but also very pragmatically realistic."

"We're still quite a ways from wrapping the whole thing up," O'Rourke said. "I'm looking forward to the work sessions [with the council]."

The council has until June 1 to make changes and adopt a budget for the fiscal year that starts July 1.

But the school board should have a final figure for the schools' budgets by the middle of this month.

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