Public schools find $3 million in extra funds

Chief says he plans to hire 27 new teachers, reduce staff cuts with windfall

`Relieves some pressure points'

Special education grant from state frees cash

February 11, 2003|By Laura Loh | Laura Loh,SUN STAFF

Anne Arundel County school officials said yesterday they have found an additional $3 million in state funds that will enable them to hire 27 new teachers and reduce proposed cuts to a popular support program for at-risk youth.

Local officials said they discovered the windfall - a state grant for special education services the county was expecting to pay for - while analyzing the budget released last month by Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr.

The budget earmarks about $188 million for county schools. The school system had expected to get about $185 million.

Of the $3 million, $600,000 will go toward the pupil personnel worker program, through which school-based staff work with thousands of potential high school dropouts and younger pupils with attendance problems. Superintendent Eric J. Smith had said he needed to cut the program by half.

An additional $1.4 million will be used to hire 20 new teachers to help reduce class sizes, two English for Speakers of Other Languages teachers and five special education teachers. The other $1 million will go toward covering rising health insurance costs for school employees.

Smith gave the news to school board members last night at a workshop about his proposed $706 million budget. The board will adopt a budget for fiscal year 2004 on Feb. 19.

Partly to offset the cost of more than $16 million in academic initiatives, Smith had proposed saving $1.2 million by reducing the number of pupil personnel workers from 32 to 16. But he has been under pressure not to cut program funding.

Dozens of people gave emotional testimonials at a pair of public hearings last month, saying the program has been a safety net for many students. The superintendent, who used the pupil personnel workers this year to decrease the county's dropout rate, has said he knows the program's importance.

With the unexpected funds, the school system can afford to keep 24 pupil personnel workers, Smith said. The remaining eight will fill school positions, such as in guidance counseling, that open up because of retirements.

"We did listen to public input in the hearings on the budget," Smith said, adding that he shares many of the concerns voiced by teachers and parents. "Hopefully this responds to some of those issues in ways that will relieve some of the pressure points."

Anne Arundel schools officials had believed the state was no longer going to earmark grant money for a program that provides nonpublic instruction for about 420 special education or disabled students.

When officials realized that the governor's budget included the grant money, they began looking for areas to use the money they had set aside for the program. Hiring teachers in the face of an ever-increasing student population is a perennial need; officials had not planned to hire any teachers because of the tight fiscal situation.

Teachers union President Sheila Finlayson said she had mixed feelings about the way the money was being spent.

Finlayson said she was pleased that fewer pupil personnel worker jobs would be cut, because teachers cannot take over their duties. But she was disappointed, she said, that the proposed $800,000 in cuts to a teacher mentor program - it would reduce the number of experienced teachers whose full-time job it is to support first- and second-year teachers from 26 to 13 - was unchanged.

"I'm very disappointed that mentors didn't make it," she said. "They were one of our biggest draws for recruiting new teachers and retaining them."

Some board members said they approved of the way Smith chose to spend the $3 million. "To me, it [showed] the superintendent really is listening to public testimony," board Vice President Carlesa Finney said. "It also keeps the board from having to increase the budget for those items."

But board member Paul Rudolph said he wished more pupil personnel workers could have been saved. "It would have been nice to be able to do more than that," Rudolph said.

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