Smith turns to parents for help

Superintendent seeks aid in getting teachers' raises

Owens opposes reserve fund

Anne Arundel

December 05, 2003|By Laura Loh | Laura Loh,SUN STAFF

Frustrated with Anne Arundel County Executive Janet S. Owens' unwillingness to give teachers $1.8 million in pay raises, schools Superintendent Eric J. Smith turned to the people last night.

"We are looking at a very disruptive and difficult spring, and a very difficult next year," Smith told a group of parents and school principals he had convened to discuss the school system's financial problems.

"Some of the fundamental questions of where we want to be as a school system are at stake."

It was a rare move for Smith, who until this year appeared to enjoy Owens' strong support on matters of spending.

Smith explained to parents and principals - the highest-level administrators most parents come into contact with - that he wanted to pay for the raises using a reserve fund, and that Owens opposed the plan.

Smith raised the specter of significant budget cuts if the county does not let him have his way.

Smith, backed by the school board, has proposed using school system savings left over at the end of the last fiscal year to pay for the 1 percent cost-of-living increases for the teachers and other employees. But he needs Owens' and the County Council's approval to spend the funds on salaries.

Anticipating that Owens will continue to oppose the plan, Smith last week made a first round of budget cuts, ordering that non-teaching vacancies remain unfilled and freezing spending on equipment and overnight travel.

In an October letter to school officials, Owens wrote that it was "not fiscally wise" for the school board to give the $2 million in raises using school funds left over at the end of the fiscal year that ended in June. Smith has warned of deeper cuts, including a likely freeze on classroom hiring by filling teaching jobs with qualified administrators from the central office.

At the meeting, Smith told the group that Owens could save the school system from reducing its services by introducing legislation for the fund transfer.

"Without that action from the county executive, the County Council will never consider this issue," Smith said. "As a result, we will have to pay for the 1 percent by being rather disruptive here in the school system."

Some parents left the meeting vowing to lobby Owens to introduce the bill.

"I think we're all willing to help," Odenton parent Peg Waters told Smith. "We're just waiting for the game plan."

Broadneck parent Alec Harper wanted more answers.

"I'm at the beginning of this process to learn what's going on," said Harper, noting that he came because he was puzzled about why teachers could not get what he considers a "meager" raise.

"It just seems incredible that we can't have a richer budget for these guys."

Several parents said they were pleased to see Smith making a direct appeal to the community. "I'm glad to see him take the gloves off," said Frank Wise, a Crofton parent and special education advocate.

Smith, who is in his second year as the county's schools chief, also sought yesterday to portray the school system as being frugal.

"We spent all of last year with some sort of [spending] freeze or another," Smith said, "out of fear" of going to the county for funds to cover unforeseen costs.

It seemed to convince Harper, who said, "He's trying his best to utilize a meager budget to the best of his ability."

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