Proposed school budget plan comes under fire of PTA Council

Members say request for $149.8 million in funds is `totally unrealistic'

October 08, 2003|By Tricia Bishop | Tricia Bishop,SUN STAFF

Members of Howard County's PTA Council sharply criticized Superintendent John R. O'Rourke's proposed capital budget last night, calling it unfundable and largely unjustified.

"The $149.8 million request is totally unrealistic," said Virginia Charles, the PTA Council's budget chairwoman and a former school board member during a hearing before the Board of Education. "The state and county will not fund it."

The parent representatives, speaking on behalf of the county's 48,000 members, begged the school board to step in and do what the superintendent has not: show some restraint and prioritize projects, pushing some to future years.

"PTA Council's overwhelming request is that the Board of Education exercise fiscal responsibility," Charles said.

She also reminded the board that it, not the superintendent, must "take ultimate responsibility and provide justification" for the capital budget request, which will be given to county officials for final approval.

More than half of the record-breaking proposal for fiscal year 2005 -$88 million more than this fiscal year's allocation - would be used to pay for three new schools, including the repeatedly delayed 12th high school, which needs $40.6 million to open by its August 2005 deadline. The rest of the request will fund several big-ticket renovations and additions throughout the county.

Some board members have publicly supported the budget, calling it brave because it doesn't back away from county needs. But others, such as Courtney Watson, have questioned asking for such a large sum in one year when it might be better spread out over several.

Among the PTA's suggested changes: delaying at least one of the new schools, not rushing construction of the high school at an additional cost, and trimming the $18 million budgeted for building renovations.

Members also implored the board to rethink a proposal to count modular construction as permanent facilities, thereby making them eligible for state funding, which will be scarce. To do so, members said, would open areas of the county to development that can't handle it, based on local laws that curb new home construction when schools are crowded.

"The only people that would benefit from this decision are the developers, certainly not the children that the board is duty-bound to educate," said Mary Jane Grauso, chairwoman of the PTA Council's Growth and Planning Committee.

Others testifying at the hearing detailed the crowded conditions at their schools - hundreds of seats short at elementary schools; teachers teaching from carts instead of classrooms; plastic tubs lining hallways for storage - and asked that the board keep them in mind when slicing the superintendent's budget.

County Executive James N. Robey said last week he would never be able to meet the full budget request, and the board plans to pare the proposal Thursday before voting on it.

PTA representatives also questioned the equity of a plan to revamp the county's vocational-education program last night, though they generally praised the idea. The changes would phase out the current magnet-style offering and replace it with multiple academies available at schools, several regional centers and a main hub in Ellicott City.

Testimony submitted to the board on behalf of PTA Council President Deborah Wessner disparaged the part that required students to provide their own transportation to school.

"This is an equity issue," Wessner wrote. "If the school system wants to have these regional academies, and we support the idea, then there will have to be a transportation program."

Wessner also chastised the school system for poorly publicizing the changes, which were announced for the first time two weeks ago.

"You cannot expect that students will be ready for these programs, or that parents will embrace them without a broad and positive marketing program," she said. Most, though, applauded the proposed improvements over the current curriculum, which many have complained is inaccessible, lacking in depth and too limited.

Board members will vote Thursday on the altered program.

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