More funding, spending in schools' future

Thornton Commission requirements discussed at council meeting

`Lots we don't know'

All-day kindergarten, preschool expansion costs among concerns

Howard County

May 08, 2002|By Larry Carson | Larry Carson,SUN STAFF

State adoption of the Thornton Commission legislation for increased school spending means more state aid, but big bills for Howard County over the next few years, too, school officials told County Council members during a budget review session yesterday.

Although Howard County would get $1.8 million more state aid next fiscal year, increasing to $37.7 million more by 2008 under the new law, its requirements are going to cost more, too. The General Assembly has provided only the first two years of funding, via a cigarette tax increase.

"There's frankly lots we don't know" about what the law will require, said school Superintendent John O'Rourke. Bruce M. Venter, the school system's chief business officer, said he received a 37-page summary of the state law.

The requirement for all-day kindergarten and expanded preschool programs for children from poor families is going to require 59 new classrooms, staffed by 86 new teachers and 46 new aides, said Deputy School Superintendent Sydney L. Cousin. The price tag, based on very early estimates, is about $21 million to get started, and Cousin cautioned that might be low.

"All preschool, at-risk kids are not yet identified. It's one of the big problems that has to be addressed," he told the council.

The other problem, he noted, is that "Thornton does not provide capital funding" to build the classrooms. Calculated on a per-square-foot classroom cost basis, Cousin said, the rooms would cost a minimum of $15 million to build, but that does not count programs using rooms now that would be displaced. And the county cannot wait until 2008, the legal deadline, to act.

"We need to think of this right now as we plan additions, rather than waiting until 2006-07," he said.

Meanwhile, the council is concentrating on this year's $824 million county budget, of which about $398 million is for schools. The recession produced an $18 million deficit in this budget year, which has prompted the executive to leave jobs unfilled, curb spending in other areas and ask for up to $15 million from the county's Rainy Day Fund.

But unlike May 1999, when council Democrats pushed through a 2-cent property tax increase to give schools more money than County Executive James N. Robey agreed to provide, the $7.6 million gap between the school board's request and Robey's budget is likely to stick - almost.

The board is using $1.6 million left from this year to pay for some health insurance costs for next year, cutting the gap to $6 million, but council members are finding little to cut beyond that. School officials promised council members that there would be enough textbooks, special education teachers and programs to help poor-performing students in all county schools, despite the budget woes.

Why no tax-increase proposals this year?

"It has to do with an election year," said retiring council member Mary C. Lorsung, a west Columbia Democrat, who noted there is much less pressure from the public this recession year to fund every penny the school board requested.

At the council's school budget hearing Saturday, she noted that "not one single person mentioned the `T' word," tax. She also noted that the gap between the board's request and Robey's budget still gives the schools three times the minimum amount required by state law to maintain education at current levels.

"In this economy, when you find three times the required maintenance of effort, despite an enrollment increase - that's significant," she said.

The council briefly examined the budget requests of a raft of other county departments as members work toward a formal budget vote May 22, but most agencies have no extra money to cut, and others are slated to get less money than last year.

As Gary J. Arthur, director of recreation and parks, joked about his 7.9 percent lower request as he sat down for the review, "I'm a man cut to the bone. All you're going to get out of me is marrow."

In addition to budget cuts, Arthur is coping with the proposed loss of $1.7 million from his department's self-sustaining fund - money collected from fees paid by residents. Although the money was to be used to build several artificial turf athletic fields in Rockburn Park, Robey said the county's need was greater this year and has said the money represents administrative fees the county stopped charging several years ago for handling the fund's books.

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