O'Rourke seeks $49.6 million increase in schools budget

Fiscal '04 spending plan to go to board tonight

January 09, 2003|By Tricia Bishop | Tricia Bishop,SUN STAFF

Howard County's schools Superintendent John R. O'Rourke is asking for a $49.6 million increase in school system operating funds for the fiscal year beginning in July.

O'Rourke is expected to present the budget plan during a Board of Education meeting tonight.

The proposal seeks $440.4 million - a 12.7 percent increase over the current year's budget of $390.8 million. The state, which would be asked to fund nearly 25 percent of the schools budget, is facing a serious budget crisis of its own.

O'Rourke was unapologetic in the face of that fiscal challenge.

"We're asking for what we need to support our programs," he said. "I don't think it's exorbitant. I think it's right in line."

Major increases reflected in the budget proposal include:

$16.4 million required to support the scheduled 4 percent teacher salary raise and step increase, which would elevate starting pay from $33,160 a year to $34,487.

$7.2 million for building maintenance, much of which was deferred last year.

$5.8 million to pay for about 1,600 more students expected to enroll in county schools next year.

$5.7 million to cover increased costs of medical insurance.

$2.2 million to cover costs of equipping and opening two new schools in August.

$1.4 million to replace textbooks that were not purchased this year.

The budget focuses on three key areas, O'Rourke said: raising student achievement; expanding staff development opportunities; and creating a comprehensive facilities master plan that will help the school system keep up with the demands of growth.

The superintendent has vowed to bring all student performances up to state standards by 2005 and eliminate achievement gaps among economic and racial subgroups of students by 2007.

"That's really what this budget is built on," Kimberly Statham, chief academic officer, said during a briefing session on the spending proposal this week, "making sure we have the resources to meet these [goals]."

The budget would increase the county school board's allowance for outside legal fees by 50 percent, bringing the total to $150,000. The board is being sued in Howard Circuit Court over alleged open-meetings violations.

Also included in the budget plan is a buffer of $23,800 that could be used to fund a potential 6 percent salary increase for O'Rourke and key members of his staff.

O'Rourke declined a salary increase for this fiscal year but received a 6 percent raise for fiscal 2002.

Most of the proposed budget's increase - $34.4 million - would fall on the shoulders of county government, making the county's total share $326.8 million. Last year, the county provided $292.4 million.

Sang Oh, an aide to County Executive James N. Robey, said his office could not comment on the feasibility of the proposal.

"We need to see all the components" before reacting, Oh said.

For the current fiscal year, O'Rourke had asked for a 5 percent increase in operating funds from the previous year and was granted a 3.4 percent increase.

"Last year was an aberration," said Bruce M. Venter, chief business officer, blaming tight economic times. "This [proposal] is not out of line compared to where we were back in fiscal year 2002."

The request for fiscal 2002 was O'Rourke's first operating budget proposal, and it sought - and got - a 12 percent increase in funding.

Apart from the county's share, the budget would be supported by state funds ($108.8 million), federal funds ($475,000) and miscellaneous sources such as system investments and gate receipts from sports events ($4.2 million).

"When you first look at the figures, it's certainly daunting," said Patricia S. Gordon, vice chairman of the school board. "But at the same time, it's all perfectly justified. ... We need additional personnel, we need supervisors, we need grounds people. This is something the general public doesn't take into consideration when they see the figure. We're opening two new schools, they need books and furniture and so forth. All of that adds up."

The school board will hold a public hearing on the superintendent's proposed budget Jan. 30, followed by three public work sessions next month, before submitting the request to Robey in March.

The executive will make recommendations, and the County Council will hold public hearings and make any necessary changes before approving a budget in late May.

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