Councilmen say school board cut too much

Guzzone, Ulman want $12.6 million restored

Funds would be for their districts

Capital budget submission due to state by tomorrow

Howard County

October 14, 2003|By Tricia Bishop | Tricia Bishop,SUN STAFF

The Howard County Board of Education cut too deep when it slashed $35 million from the school superintendent's proposed capital budget, say two county councilmen who want to restore $12.6 million worth of projects.

"I do give the board a lot of credit for going through and making some tough choices," council Chairman Guy Guzzone said yesterday. "I think they're responding to what they see as financial realities out there, but I think at the moment we're still at a place and a time where we can maintain a little more flexibility."

The school board stands behind its decision Thursday to cut nearly $35 million from Superintendent John R. O'Rourke's $149.8 million request, crediting the trims with producing a realistic and well-justified document.

FOR THE RECORD - Centennial Lane Elementary School in Ellicott City is not in the districts of Howard County Councilmen Guy Guzzone or Ken Ulman as was incorrectly reported in yesterday's Howard County edition of The Sun. The school is in Councilman Christopher J. Merdon's district. The Sun regrets the error.

"I believe that the school system needed to provide a credible budget that recognized the reality of the funding situation," said board member Courtney Watson, who researched and suggested most of the trims accepted by the board.

"I think that the budget we're putting forward now at $115 million is a responsible budget. The needs that are in there are very clearly justified," she said.

Guzzone and Ken Ulman, both Democrats, said they were dismayed the board chose to alter projects in their districts: eliminating a cafeteria expansion at Clarksville Middle School and deferring until 2006 an addition at Gorman Crossing Elementary and renovations at Clarksville and Centennial Lane elementary schools.

The councilmen are researching the feasibility of restoring the projects to the budget request - an unprecedented move - which must be submitted to the state by tomorrow, though revisions are accepted through Dec. 7.

"Usually they make the request to the [state] and we simply sign off on it," Guzzone said. "But this is a more extraordinary year with more demands being placed upon it."

At this early stage of the capital budget process, boards of education typically ask for more than they think they'll get, knowing that there are many steps down the road where cuts could be made. But this year, the Howard board decided to pare the superintendent's budget from the get-go, upsetting Guzzone and Ulman. Ulman called Watson during the board's meeting to express his displeasure.

"As long as I'm asked to come up with the funding, I'm going to absolutely assert my judgment and absolutely question the funding priorities," said Ulman, adding that he will not approve the request as it stands. "In no way will I back down from that job or that role."

But Watson said he crossed the line.

"There is a tremendous amount of need in all five districts in the county. We can't favor one district over the other because of political infighting among County Council members," Watson said. "We're countywide-elected officials and it's our job to decide how money is best spent."

Board member James P. O'Donnell said focusing on district benefits is a council member's job,

"I think that the County Council should advocate for their district, but the school board has the responsibility to look at all of the issues countywide. And I don't think it's appropriate for a County Council person to say we know better than you," O'Donnell said. "We have to lay out the budget and then be ready to defend every item year after year."

The board also deferred several projects, including an addition at Waverly Elementary, $4 million worth of work at Glenelg High, $6 million for new elementary schools and $1.5 million in kindergarten classrooms. Also deleted were additions planned for Hammond Elementary and Middle schools.

Council member Christopher J. Merdon, a Republican, said the school board members made the right decision in paring the original request, which was unfundable.

"The Board of Education is in a better position to prioritize the capital budget than two council members with special interests," Merdon said, adding that it appeared Ulman and Guzzone were "playing politics with our school system."

Councilman Allan H. Kittleman agreed, praising the board's restraint and judgment.

"They wouldn't do something that would severely impair kids," said Kittleman, a Republican.

But the two Democrats said they saw the needs of older buildings being neglected and had to step in.

"If we're going to build new seats, if we're going to build new schools, we have to make sure that the older schools don't get left really far behind," Guzzone said.

"We need to think about this budget as an interactive one," cautioned council member David A. Rakes, a Democrat. "This is just the first step in a four-step dance. ... We need to make this more of a cooperative effort." There are still many hurdles to clear before the budget - which will fund construction in fiscal 2005, which begins in July - is finalized, and likely many more cuts to come. Last year's capital budget request at this stage was more than $86 million, and $62 million of it was funded.

"The point of bringing [those four projects] back into consideration is not to say necessarily that ultimately they're guaranteed to get funded," Guzzone said. "I think that it's just too early in the budget process that has three or four more steps to be removing as many projects as were removed. ... I'm not sure I'm willing to give up on them at this point."

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