Ecker to reveal budget proposal to school board

Plan seeks $15.7 million more than last year

$6.2 million for salary increases

Making good on workers' contracts `high priority'

Carroll County

January 22, 2003|By Jennifer McMenamin | Jennifer McMenamin,SUN STAFF

Carroll schools Superintendent Charles I. Ecker will release a $227.8 million budget proposal today that includes money for employee raises, increases in insurance costs, technology upgrades for schools and more teachers to keep up with student enrollment.

Despite Maryland's budget shortfall of about $1.2 billion and uncertainties of how that deficit will affect counties, Ecker's operating budget request for the fiscal year that begins in July is $15.7 million more than he asked for last year and $20.9 million more than the school system received last year from local, state and federal governments.

"These are dire circumstances this year. I realize that," Ecker said yesterday. "But we are going to ask for more than we expect. We need it."

The superintendent would not release his budget request yesterday, but he and his budget supervisor, Walter Brilhart, discussed the proposal in general terms.

Included in the spending plan is $6.2 million for staff salary increases, which would honor the second year of two-year contract agreements with the five unions representing the school system's 2,800 employees.

Teachers, principals, administrators, nurses, secretaries and instructional assistants agreed to the equivalent of a 4 percent raise stretched over two years. Food service workers, maintenance staff, custodians and bus drivers bargained two consecutive years of 3 percent raises.

After nearly a year of contentious contract talks with the teachers union and a lingering work-to-rule job action at some schools, making good on those negotiated agreements is the school district's "highest priority," Brilhart said. "You can carve that off the top regardless of whatever else we're asking for."

The proposed budget request also includes money to hire 15 teachers to keep up with increasing enrollments. The instructors would be deployed primarily at Carroll's seven high schools, where enrollment projections predict an influx of nearly 800 students in the next four years, while elementary and middle school populations level off or decline slightly.

"You don't have to address growth. You can increase class sizes," Ecker said. "But we don't want to do that or increase teachers' workload."

The superintendent's choice of words seemed to be a nod to a task force of teachers and administrators who met in response to the work-to-rule job action. Some teachers at nearly all of the county's 37 schools decided to work more closely to the terms of their contract and refused after-school activities for which they are not paid.

Many of the task force's suggestions to improve working conditions for teachers focused on lessening their workload. They also noted outdated computers and too few technicians to repair them.

Addressing those grievances, Ecker's budget proposal includes money for five technicians, replacement computers and standardization of the district's computer software programs. Some teachers had complained that they cannot open e-mail messages from central office staff because the software on school computers is not compatible with that used in the central office.

The budget request also includes about $3 million for increases in medical, property and general liability insurance, Ecker said. And it contains $1 million for the second- and third-year expenses for opening Westminster's Winters Mill High and Eldersburg's Century High, respectively, and start-up costs for the county's Gateway alternative school.

Based on early revenue estimates, Brilhart said, Carroll school officials expect to receive about $114 million this year from the county, $92.6 million from the state and $13.5 million from federal and other sources. That leaves the school system about $7.7 million short of Ecker's proposed budget request.

The gap likely will widen during the budget process because the school board in recent years has added to the superintendent's spending proposal.

On the eve of last year's final budget hearing in February, Ecker added $6.7 million to his request to cover employee raises. By the end of the hearing the next evening, school board members tacked on another $1 million, raising the district's operating budget request to $212.1 million. The system received $206.9 million from federal, state and county sources.

The only upshot of a tight fiscal year is shorter meetings, Brilhart quipped, adding, "We walk in, empty our pockets and pick through the change to see what's left.

"We have to be realistic about what we can and can't afford. ... Many times we've been at the point where we say, `Is this really necessary? What happens if we put this off?' It's a whole different mode of decision-making when the money's tight," Brilhart added.

After a budget is approved by the school board, the request moves to the county commissioners. The commissioners usually allocate less money than the superintendent has requested, forcing school board members to trim their spending plan.

Ecker will present his budget proposal to the school board at 6 p.m. today at the school district's administrative offices on North Court Street in Westminster. Several public hearings on the proposed budget will follow, all at 7 p.m.: Feb. 4 at Oklahoma Road Middle; Feb. 13 at Shiloh Middle; and Feb. 20 at Westminster High. The board is scheduled to adopt a budget request at the final public meeting.

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