Schools cuts are `very bad'

O'Rourke introduces 141 budget reductions

Making up for funding losses

April 25, 2003|By Tricia Bishop | Tricia Bishop,SUN STAFF

If the Howard County Council can't cough up the millions sliced from the school board's operating budget request for the next fiscal year, dozens of teaching positions could go unfilled, class sizes could get larger and school staff may not get promised raises.

"This is the bad news," School Superintendent John R. O'Rourke told Board of Education members during a meeting last night, "and some of it is very, very bad."

O'Rourke stood before the board, forced to introduce 141 cuts and two resulting additions to the budget he largely developed, all in an effort to make up for funding losses at both the state and county level.

"I hope everybody gets some sense of just how painful this really is," he said, explaining that he had serious concerns about the school system's "ability to deliver the same level of quality of instruction" without the funds.

The operating budget proposal the Board of Education sent to County Executive James N. Robey asked for $442.9 million, $330.6 million of it from the county.

But the budget Robey sent back trimmed as much as $20.3 million off of the request - $14.8 million outright. Another $5.5 million, meant to fund 2 percentage points of contractually promised 4 percent staff raises, was put in a contingency fund that could evaporate depending upon the state's budget situation.

"We need to make some plans as if that might happen," O'Rourke said.

To that end, O'Rourke offered some disturbing suggestions, saying he hated doing it, but had no alternative.

First to go to make up the $20.3 million difference were account clerk, buyer and receptionist positions. Health insurance funds saw a $4.6 million drop made by adjusting the estimated costs and shifting funds from the current operating budget into a category where it can be carried over to the next year's.

Resource teacher positions also were slashed, along with $50,000 in math book funding and four of the newly created guidance positions for the elementary schools, which would finally have given all elementaries a counselor - a repeatedly deferred goal since the 1980s.

Building maintenance equipment and repairs took a $3 million hit, and 8.5 custodial positions were cut.

And that is all before the potential loss of the $5.5 million in contingency is considered. If that were to happen, special education would suffer a funding cut of about $750,000, in large part by losing 13 of 25 new teaching positions.

The toughest suggestions O'Rourke had to make, though, were the last two on the list: increasing class size at the high school and middle school levels by one student, which would wipe out nearly $2.2 million in salary needs.

"I came to that [decision] kicking and screaming," O'Rourke said, calling it the holy grail of educators to reduce, not increase, class size.

Sandra H. French, board chairman, darkened the picture further when she pointed out just how much Robey believes in his version of the budget.

"The county executive has really gone out on a huge limb in support of this budget, even though it is not enough of an increase," French said, pointing to Robey's request to raise income taxes to as high as they can go - 3.2 percent - to meet the county's needs.

"It's a significantly courageous act," French said. "We have to recognize that all of these cuts could just be the beginning if that proposition to increase the income tax is not approved by the County Council. There could be a worse scenario out there."

O'Rourke said that was one of the reasons it was imperative that residents voice their opinions during a County Council public hearing on the budget at 9 a.m. May 3 at the George Howard Building in Ellicott City, before the budget is set and it is too late.

In other business, the board heard a recommendation from David C. Drown, the school system's coordinator of geographical systems, last night to raise the number of portable classrooms, based largely on capacity needs, 13 percent to 121 next school year.

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