Hairston proposes boost in spending

Budget plan includes $49 million increase, avoids cuts in services

January 15, 2003|By Jonathan D. Rockoff | Jonathan D. Rockoff,SUN STAFF

Baltimore County Superintendent Joe A. Hairston proposed last night an $857 million operating budget for the coming year that includes $49 million in new spending, most of which would pay for rising health care, salary and special education costs.

At a time of tight money, Hairston proposed diverting some spending and eliminating the "academic intervention team," which consists of teachers helping at-risk schools, so that several new initiatives to improve instruction for elementary school pupils can be funded.

The superintendent did not propose cost-of-living adjustments for teachers, principals and other employees, but he largely avoided the cuts in services that are afflicting many school systems around the country, including Baltimore's.

The final operating budget for next year might bear little resemblance to Hairston's proposal because neither the state - which is facing a combined $1.8 billion budget deficit - nor the county has said how much money it plans to give the school system.

That uncertainty has led to hand-wringing at school system headquarters and prompted the school board to meet in secret last week to give the superintendent direction on formulating his budget.

The 2003-2004 spending plan covers school expenses other than capital items, such as renovations and construction. Hairston presented it last night to the school board, which will vote on it Feb. 26. A public hearing has been scheduled for Jan. 29. Approval of the county executive and the County Council is required for the final budget.

In his operating budget, the superintendent proposed using most of the 6 percent spending increase to cover jumps of $19 million in health care costs and $9.1 million in salaries for teachers and principals, based on length of service.

An additional $8.5 million in new spending would cover the cost of educating the growing number of students with special needs who must be schooled privately.

Hairston said skyrocketing health-care costs hamstrung the budget and limited the system's ability to improve its computer capabilities and recruit and retain teachers.

"That money could have been used for other services that are sorely needed in our organization," he said.

The proposed budget would pay for the 102 new teachers needed for rising enrollments and the opening of New Town High School. And it includes spending on new instructional initiatives.

In a move supported by new County Executive James T. Smith Jr., Hairston's proposal would reduce the ratio of pupils to teachers in kindergarten and first and second grades to 22-to-1. The ratio has been 24-to-1.

Elementary schools would receive science kits to enrich the curriculum for fourth-graders. Those schools also would share mentors for math teachers and technology teachers who would help maintain computers and provide instruction in their use.

As part of a continuing effort to encourage college-bound students to take rigorous classes, 8,800 seventh-graders and their families would take a 12-week course on preparing for college. In addition, $2.5 million would be allocated to bolster accelerated classes for gifted students.

The superintendent's staff said any unexpected additional funding could be used for raising salaries. But they cautioned that the system could lose an estimated $7.3 million in extra state aid that they are counting on under legislation stemming from the Thornton Commission report.

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