Owens faulted for signing off on pay raise

County Council irked that she OK'd funds without its input

`Budget is manipulated'

Nonclassroom employees received early increase

July 28, 2002|By Lynn Anderson | Lynn Anderson,SUN STAFF

Anne Arundel County school system employees who work outside the classroom have one person in particular to thank for their recently discovered salary increase: County Executive Janet S. Owens.

Owens, a Democrat who is running for re-election, quietly committed $1.8 million in taxpayer funds last year to cover raises for nonclassroom employees.

She did so after the county budget had been approved by the County Council, which has joint powers of the purse, and never asked for members' permission.

Owens' solo action, documented in letters from school system officials, has angered council members who learned of it in May and say they should have been included in any decision to alter the county's 2001-2002 budget, a spending plan of $858 million.

"The budget is manipulated by the county executive repeatedly," said John J. Klocko III, a Crofton Republican and frequent critic of Owens. "It's absurd."

As the county's top elected official, one of Owens' most important duties is to balance the budget. Yet it's clear from correspondence obtained by The Sun that she approved the salary increase - three days after the council finished its budget deliberations - despite reports that the school system might finish the year in the red.

Owens has denied playing a significant role in approving the raise. Her spokesman said Friday that there was little Owens could do but to accept the school board's raise recommendation.

Under state law, even after the county approves a budget, a school board has the power to shift funds to uses other than those approved in the budget, including raises.

"Basically, what it boils down to is that the Board of Education didn't need the county executive's support," said spokesman Matt Diehl.

School officials, however, said they never would have pushed ahead with the raise without Owens' backing. While the Anne Arundel County Board of Education has more independence than other department heads in terms of spending, board members knew they needed Owens' blessing to avoid a funding tussle at the end of the fiscal year.

"It's all part of the political process," said Gregory V. Nourse, the school system's associate superintendent for business and management.

The timing of the deal, which was worked out away from public scrutiny, is what worries some elected officials the most.

According to the 2001-2002 budget, which was adopted by the council May 31, 2001, only teachers were supposed to receive a raise July 1, 2001. All other staff members were supposed to wait until April 1, 2002.

The same month that Owens signed off on the raises - June 2001 - then-school Superintendent Carol S. Parham announced a hiring freeze and other cutbacks to sidestep a nearly $5 million school system deficit.

But Owens, who recently was endorsed by the teachers union, partially because of raises she secured, made sure everyone got a salary boost sooner than later.

"[Owens] knew there was a projected deficit and she went ahead and gave them the raise anyway," said council member Barbara D. Samorajczyk, a Democrat from Annapolis. "It's unbelievable. There really are no rules."

Council members said they found out about Owens' decision to fund the 4 percent raise for all school employees effective July 1, 2001, during end-of-the-year budget meetings two months ago.

But school officials said they sent the council a report outlining the cost of the raises in November.

Nourse, the school system's top management officer, confirmed the budget amendment with then Chief Administrative Officer Jerome W. Klasmeier in a June 12, 2001, letter.

"It is our understanding that the County Executive has agreed to support a 4 percent [raise] for all school system employees effective July 1, 2001," Nourse said. At the end of his letter, Nourse stated that if Owens had changed her mind, Klasmeier should notify him immediately.

Nourse, who never heard back from Klasmeier, said that it was the Owens administration - not the school board - that pushed the raises after the council left them out of the budget.

"We were told that the decision had been made," he said.

In a second letter, dated June 21, 2001, Board of Education President Paul G. Rudolph reminded Owens that "approval [of the pay raise for all employees effective July 1] was given with the understanding that you fully support this action."

Council members never got a chance to weigh in.

"I don't remember giving that our blessing," said council member Pamela G. Beidle, a Democrat from Linthicum. "I do recall that the school system was very unhappy with the budget."

Diehl said Owens authorized the raises because she knew the school board was disappointed with the budget approved by the council in May 2001. She believed the school system would be able to cover the added costs through budget cuts and new revenue.

"It was reasonable to assume that the board could cover the $1.8 million," he said.

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