School board seeks funds

$4.9 million is needed to cover system deficit

May 16, 2002|By Stephen Kiehl | Stephen Kiehl,SUN STAFF

After cutting as much money as possible without hurting classroom instruction, the Anne Arundel school board will ask the county for $4.9 million in emergency funds to cover a deficit for this year.

The request, approved unanimously by the board last night, will be delivered to County Executive Janet S. Owens today. The County Council will take action on the request next month. Approval is expected.

It is the first time in at least 25 years that the school system has had to make such an appeal. Officials said they would have needed millions more dollars if not for spending cuts made during the year.

"We knew going into this budget that there were some built-in problems, and we tried to deal with them as best we could," said Interim Superintendent Kenneth P. Lawson. "While $4.9 million is a great concern, I feel we've done everything we can to get it down to that level."

To save money, the system has slowed hiring and closed accounts used for school supplies. Staff travel was frozen and training conferences were curtailed.

But with salaries and benefits making up 80 percent of the budget, only so much could be cut, said Associate Superintendent Gregory V. Nourse.

"The question is, what do you cut if you don't want to impact the classroom?" Nourse said. "You have an obligation to meet the needs of the kids in the school system."

Before the reductions were made, the system estimated a $14 million shortfall on its operating budget of $598 million this year.

Rising costs of health insurance and the increased number of special education students attending private schools contributed to the deficit.

Special education factor

If the county can't provide services needed for special education students, it has to pay the costs and transportation for them to attend private schools. Tuition this year was $3.7 million more than expected and transportation was $600,000 more.

County officials said last night that the school system has kept them apprised of the budget situation over the year, so the appeal for emergency money is not a surprise.

The county has a surplus fund of at least $27 million that can be applied to the school system's shortfall.

"Every indication is that the council is going to support that," said County Councilwoman Pamela G. Beidle, a Linthicum Democrat.

Beidle said it appeared that school officials have managed their money prudently, and that costs out of their control, such as insurance, caused the deficit.

More aggressive paring

Nonetheless, to prevent this from happening next year, Lawson said he will be more aggressive in paring down the 2003 budget.

That could mean not filling positions that the county has authorized, he said.

"The last place I want to affect is the schoolhouse," Lawson said, "but that's where the dollars are."

In other action last night, the school board passed a clarification of the county's academic integrity policy.

The policy now calls for schools to focus on "character education" and defines academic integrity as "exhibiting honesty in all academic exercises and assignments."

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