Tight budget imperils plans for education

Request for funds to hire 80 new teachers rejected

`Bare-bones' strategy

Other county agencies fare worse than schools

Harford County

March 30, 2003|By Ted Shelsby | Ted Shelsby,SUN STAFF

Plans by the school board to hire 80 teachers, reduce class sizes and provide relief for overworked custodians are seriously threatened by County Executive James M. Harkins' budget for the new fiscal year, school officials say.

The budget, which is to go to the County Council on Tuesday, reflects the difficult financial times in the county and the state.

The budget also casts doubt on increased funding for student field trips and a $5-a-day pay raise for substitute teachers.

"It's a bare-bones budget," Superintendent Jacqueline C. Haas said. The proposed $1.3 million increase in county funding "was not much over that required by law. There is very little in our master plan that is being funded," she said.

During his budget briefing Friday with reporters, Harkins said the school system "fared better than most other county agencies."

He said spending per pupil will rise $111 in the new school year, to $4,350.

There wasn't much of a surprise in the education portion of the budget.

James C. Richardson, director of human resources, noted several weeks ago the difficult financial times for the county and the state. "It's going to be brutal," he said of the budget for fiscal 2004.

John L. Cox, budget director for the county public schools, said overall school spending will rise 3.3 percent, to $295.6 million, including county, state and federal funding.

In its funding request to the county early last month, the school board requested $9.5 million in additional funding from the county.

As things stand now, the increase will be $1,321,341.

"It appears that all of those new teaching jobs will go bye-bye," Cox said of the school board's request for $3.55 million to hire 80 teachers.

"To balance the budget, it looks like everything here will have to be dropped," Cox said pointing to the portion of the school board's proposed operating budget listing master plan priority items.

The master plan involves meeting standards of the federal No Child Left Behind Act education plan, which requires additional testing and seeks to raise standards in schools nationwide.

In its budget submitted to the county executive, the school board sought an increase of 6.5 percent, or $18.6 million, to $304.6 million.

Richardson said the County Council has the authority to take funds from other county agencies to add to the school budget.

Cox said the school board could shift funding between programs covered by its operating budget.

Cox said the state budget process is not complete and that there is a chance the state's contribution to the county could change by the time the General Assembly session ends.

Other school board proposals threatened by the county budget, Cox said, include:

Eleven instructional support positions, usually filled by senior teachers who work with other teachers in the classrooms to help them improve.

A $5-a-day pay increase for substitute teachers, to $67.50. "Substitute teachers could do better working at Wawa," Cox said.

Five special-education teaching positions, which would cost $217,000.

Four custodian positions. The school board has noted that the custodians' workload has risen significantly in recent years.

A $75,000 increase in funding for student field trips.

A systemwide upgrade of middle school language, art and reading classes. This would include $140,000 for new textbooks and other materials.

A $120,000 increase in funding for the International Baccalaureate program, which provides college-level course work for high school juniors and seniors in certain academic areas.

The budget has been proposed as heath care costs are rising sharply.

"The thing that is eating us alive is health and dental benefits," said Cox. He said health care costs rose $7.9 million this year, to $35.3 million. "This is about 12 percent of the school budget," he said.

"By the time we pay for benefits, teacher compensation and the cost of doing business, including utilities and transportation, there's not much left."

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