School board hears pleas for coming year's budget

Speakers acknowledge education's `fiscal realities'

Howard County

January 30, 2004|By Tricia Bishop | Tricia Bishop,SUN STAFF

More than 60 people testified before the Howard County Board of Education last night, pleading for more money, less money, redistributed money or just plain money for their diverse interests from the superintendent's proposed $480.7 million operating budget, which is before the board for consideration.

Some asked for funding at individual schools, others for countywide programs, still others for personal causes. But nearly all recognized they were on shaky ground. This year's operating budget request is 14 percent larger than last year's, and funding sources are slim.

The speakers acknowledged this with phrases such as "fiscal realities," "precarious position" and "tight current budget." They were earnest, intense and utterly unapologetic.

Del. Neil Quinter, a Howard County Democrat, asked the board to fund the first phase of full-day kindergarten next year, which was previously planned, but pulled by Superintendent John R. O'Rourke for other priorities, such as honoring a negotiated teacher pay increase.

"Full-day kindergarten is vitally important for closing the achievement gap that we continue to struggle with," Quinter told the board, referring to a disparity in scores among races and economic backgrounds.

Three seventh-graders from Murray Hill Middle School asked for continuation of a program operating on grant money that is about to run out.

Third-grader Daniel Goldstein from Worthington Elementary asked for more computers, in part so he could correspond with his Polish pen pal via e-mail.

Danixa Miller, a River Hill High School student, asked for funding for a homework club.

"I beg - no, I implore - you to find funding," Miller said, apparently realizing the necessary dramatics of a budget hearing.

The presidents of two county unions begged the board to keep its previous promises and fund negotiated raises for school staff - more than $27 million worth.

"For each and every one of the 5,691 employees of the Howard County Public School System represented by the Howard County Education Association, the No. 1 budget priority for next year is the full funding of the negotiated agreement," said HCEA President Joe Staub.

But Ellen Flynn Giles, speaking on behalf of the Howard Citizens' Advisory Committee, pointed out that the salary increases - when coupled with the associated increase in health-benefit costs - "represents more than three-quarters of the increase being requested in this proposed budget." She asked the board to weigh that fact against the "impact of reductions" in other areas.

Giles also asked the board, whose members listened intently throughout the night, to find funds for full-day kindergarten as well as resources to maintain computers.

The board will hold its first work session on the proposed budget at 1 p.m. Tuesday at its headquarters, 10910 Clarksville Pike, Ellicott City.

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