School board set to cut $3.5 million from budget plan

Future of salary increases negotiated in Sept. might be uncertain, officials say

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

Carroll County school board members begin the difficult task tomorrow of carving millions of dollars worth of programs and new staff out of their $228 million operating budget request for the fiscal year starting in July.

Since the board approved a spending plan in February, county government officials have proposed $1.6 million more for the school district than they originally had intended. But the school system lost $937,973 in state funding when Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. began making cuts to cover Maryland's estimated $1 billion revenue gap.

For now, the adjustments leave the school district's spending request nearly $3.5 million higher than projected allocations from local, state and federal governments. Working from a list of proposed cuts from the superintendent, board members will talk about ways to trim their spending plan at 1 p.m. tomorrow at the school district's offices in Westminster.

"If you look at it from a structural standpoint, there are certain walls you can move and finagle and you don't topple the building," said school board President Susan G. Holt. "We have to be very attentive to what we would cut."

Walter Brilhart, the district's budget supervisor, said he expects that the biggest new expense - a $6.2 million salary increase that would honor the second year of two-year contract agreements with five unions representing 2,800 school employees - will remain untouched.

Reductions to the spending request likely will be made by cutting programs or positions that the board had hoped to add this year, and by trimming money from existing services, Brilhart said. He also suggested that the board could use the surplus expected this year - perhaps $100,000 or so - to cover one-time expenses anticipated next fiscal year.

"My guess is that all of those options will be a factor," Brilhart said. "My guess is that the intention is to keep the negotiated agreement as planned."

`Nothing's untouchable'

But Holt said that given the uncertainty of fluctuating revenue estimates - especially the state's share - nothing is off-limits.

"I would like to keep it, but we have to look at what's more important," she said of employee raises. "Is it a full [salary] increase? Is it the supports, the people who work alongside teachers? Because it could come down to something's got to give.

"My intentions are to keep the contract, to honor the contract," Holt added. "But I guess I'd say the old line, that nothing's untouchable."

After nearly a year of contentious contract talks ended in September with raises less than initially promised to teachers and a work-to-rule job action that affected dozens of public schools in the county, union leaders have remained wary during this year's budget process.

They cheered the inclusion of millions of dollars in Superintendent Charles I. Ecker's initial budget proposal to replace outdated computers, provide more planning time for elementary school teachers and hire more clerical assistants - all demands of disgruntled teachers raised during the job action.

But union leaders acknowledged that the real test would occur as Ecker and school board members inevitably are forced to revise their spending plan to bring it in line with county and state allocations.

Teachers, principals, administrators, nurses, secretaries and instructional assistants agreed last year 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.

In addition to employee raises, the $228 million spending request approved by the school board in February includes money for technology upgrades for schools, more teachers to keep up with student enrollment, and a new program that trains and conducts background checks on parents who volunteer in schools.

The request is $15.9 million more than the board asked for last year and $21.1 million more than the school system received from local, state and federal governments last year.

More cuts possible

A chance remains, however, that state budget allocations could change after the school board and county commissioners finalize their budgets.

"This has turned out to be a doozy," said Brilhart, the budget supervisor. "There's a strong possibility that we could have to turn around and make adjustments to this in July. There could be cuts after the fact. That could happen this year. It all depends on what the governor's plan is."

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