Ecker urged to preserve spending

First public meeting held on $227.8 million schools budget plan

February 05, 2003|By Jennifer McMenamin | Jennifer McMenamin,SUN STAFF

Stressing the importance of specialized programs for gifted and special education students alike, a sparse crowd of parents, teachers and school staff turned out for a public hearing last night to ask Carroll schools Superintendent Charles I. Ecker not to cut anything from his $227.8 million budget proposal.

A union official suggested that the spending request - more than $5 million over what school officials anticipate will be approved by the county commissioners - is not nearly fat enough.

"It is disheartening to hear some folks already talking about fallback positions. Fallback, hell," said Hal Fox, who represents about 2,300 teachers, nurses, instructional assistants and secretaries working in Carroll public schools. "We ought to be proposing a whole lot more in this budget than we are."

He urged school board members - four of whom attended last night's session, with one absent - to include more in the budget request they send to the commissioners this month. Directing his attention to Commissioner Dean L. Minnich in the audience, he implored the commissioners to fully fund any request sent to them. This is the first budget cycle for the new three-member Board of County Commissioners, elected in November.

The hearing at Oklahoma Road Middle in Eldersburg was the first of three such meetings the superintendent has scheduled for parents, employees and others in the community to weigh in on his proposed budget request for the fiscal year that begins in July. Nearly half of the 45 people who gathered last night were administrators on Ecker's staff, who were on hand to answer questions.

Two public hearings remain -Feb. 13 at Shiloh Middle in Hampstead, and Feb. 20 at Westminster High. Both are at 7 p.m. The school board is scheduled to adopt a budget request at the final public meeting.

The school board's request will be forwarded to the county's three commissioners, who finalize their budget in May.

Last month, Ecker unveiled a $227.8 million proposal 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 spending request 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.

Acting county Budget Director Ted Zaleski has warned school board members that they can expect about $5.6 million less than Ecker has requested from county government.

The superintendent sounded a cautionary note last night. If the General Assembly does not approve slot machines or a tax increase this year, he said, the school district will not get the money he is counting on from the state.

But the parents in attendance stressed the value of every program whose funding could be on the chopping block if school board members have to cut their spending request.

Dawn Lucarelli, whose third-grade daughter and kindergartner son attend Carrolltowne Elementary, told Ecker that her family recently moved to Carroll from Anne Arundel County, in part because of Carroll's extended-enrichment program for the school district's brightest elementary and middle school pupils.

"It's made a difference for my daughter, and we're hoping it will make a difference for my son," she said. "When you talk about No Child Left Behind, ... [the new federal education legislation] you need to raise not only the floor but also the ceiling."

Other parents asked Ecker to safeguard the special-education budget, noting statistics that 13 percent of the district's 28,000 students receive special-education services but 10.7 percent of the budget is funneled to such programs.

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