School board OKs Smith's spending plan

$703 million budget features an eight-fold increase for textbooks

Headed to county executive

Superintendent says last-minute additions reflect parents' requests

Anne Arundel

February 27, 2003|By Laura Loh | Laura Loh,SUN STAFF

The Anne Arundel County school board approved yesterday a $703 million budget that includes a nearly eight-fold increase in textbook spending and several last-minute revisions to fund community-backed school construction projects and a mentoring program for new teachers.

The budget for the 2003-2004 school year will be forwarded this week to County Executive Janet S. Owens, who may alter the $427.7 million being sought from the county before submitting the budget to the County Council by May 1. State and federal funds make up the rest of the budget.

Superintendent Eric J. Smith had his staff tweak the budget until just before yesterday's board meeting to address concerns raised by board members and the community.

"We found a way to loosen things up and make some adjustments," Smith said after the meeting.

Among the changes was the inclusion of more than $2 million in planning money for projects that parents and students lobbied hard for at public hearings last month. They include renovations for aging Harman and Pasadena elementary schools, a bigger gym for North County High School and air conditioning for Arundel High.

Postponed for at least another year were multimillion-dollar projects to renovate science labs at Chesapeake and Meade high schools. The school system had hoped for state funding for those projects in the coming year but has failed to receive it.

Other revisions approved by the board yesterday included restoring the positions of eight pupil personnel workers - staff who support at-risk youth - and three mentor teachers who were to have been transferred to classroom jobs to save money. The school board went a step further, voting to increase the budget by $200,000 to retain three additional mentors. Seven of 26 mentor teachers still would be transferred.

The budget calls for more than $12 million to be spent on standard textbooks for pupils in grades K-8, up from $1.6 million this year. It also includes more than $8 million to start several academic initiatives, including full-day kindergarten, the International Baccalaureate program and enhanced advanced placement (AP) offerings for students taking college-level courses in high school.

The board approved about $12 million in cuts recommended by Smith. They include reductions in building maintenance and the reassignment of several dozen staff members - pupil personnel workers and nonclassroom teachers - to regular teaching posts left open through attrition or created by the initiatives and a new secondary school schedule next year.

The board unanimously approved the budget after about an hour's discussion. Board members voted 6-2 in favor of the increase to save the mentor teacher positions.

Konrad Wayson, one of those who opposed the increase, said it was not wise to ask the county for more funds at this time.

"I can't see ... raising the budget any more, when everyone's being asked to cut back," Wayson told the rest of the board.

Owens estimates she will be able to increase the school system's budget by $11 million from last year's $405 million. The school board's budget seeks a $22 million increase from the county - the smallest increase in five years. It includes $11 million in cost-of-living raises for teachers.

Earlier this month, Owens said she plans to cut cost-of-living increases for teachers and other county employees.

The superintendent declined to speculate about whether that means the county executive will fund the rest of the school budget. "Those numbers match very nicely, but I wouldn't want to draw that conclusion," he said.

Yesterday, supporters of several school construction projects rejoiced that some funding was included for long-awaited work that Smith left out of his original budget proposal in December.

Parent Mabel Melendez, who has rallied the Harman community to seek its school's inclusion in the budget, said she couldn't wait to deliver the news to other parents.

"They're so discouraged," Melendez said. "To show them that it was worth it, it's gonna be great."

Councilwoman Pamela G. Beidle, whose district includes North County High and Harman Elementary, said she was pleased that funding was included for those schools.

"It's not that we don't get any money, it's just that we need so much," she said. "It's the oldest part of the county."

Board member Eugene Peterson said he felt the approved budget was "very responsible," considering the state's and county's tight fiscal situation. But he added that the budget may change between now and when the County Council adopts it.

"No one should breathe a sigh of relief at this time," he said. "We have a very difficult budget process to go through."

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