The Carroll County school board approved a $244.1 million operating budget request last night that includes money to increase employees' salaries and carve out more paid time for staff training - but delays the school system's plan to phase in state-mandated, full-day kindergarten.
School board members added more than $5.5 million to the spending request last night to cover 2 percent raises and "step increases" - the automatic pay raises built into salary scales - for nearly 3,200 schools employees represented by five labor unions.
The board also added $520,000 to cover an additional paid work day for teachers, increasing their contractual work calendar to 191 days to build an extra day into the school year for staff training and lesson-planning.
Faced with the prospect of approving a budget request that was about $6.3 million higher than what school officials expect to receive from federal, state and local governments, the school board decided to make cuts to the superintendent's original spending proposal.
Topping the board's list was full-day kindergarten.
Carroll school officials have been working for two years to reverse the state law requiring all kindergartners to be enrolled in all-day programs by the 2007-2008 school year. With four bills moving through the General Assembly that would eliminate or push back the deadline, board members unanimously agreed to cut the $535,230 that would have begun phasing in all-day programs at the county's 21 elementary schools this summer.
"I don't like making an investment in something that we then turn around and don't do," board member Laura K. Rhodes said. "I don't think we should put money into the program until a definitive answer is given."
The money would have paid for 6 1/2 teaching positions, five instructional assistants, and furniture and equipment to start or expand full-day kindergarten programs at Cranberry Station, Elmer Wolfe, Robert Moton, Taneytown and William Winchester elementary schools. Superintendent Charles I. Ecker said he would recommend at next week's board meeting that the five-member panel officially delay the phase-in plan by a year.
The board cut another $1.7 million from Ecker's original spending request - including money to hire 13 new teachers, increase hourly wages for temporary and part-time employees, and hire seven high school administrators who would supervise after-school activities and coordinate the use of their buildings by school and community groups.
Nevertheless, the budget request approved last night remains higher than county officials have said taxpayers can afford.
"They're about $2.7 million above what we had planned, and they're totally counting on the county for the excess amount," Ted Zaleski, the county's director of management and budget, said after the meeting.
Zaleski warned that the gap could grow even wider as Maryland lawmakers work through projected state budget shortfalls. Although the county commissioners might be able to find more money for the school system for one-time expenses, he said, the chances of finding more money for annual costs, such as new programs or hiring new staff, were unlikely.
"All the thinking we're doing right now is under the shadow of what happens with the state budget, and there's nothing positive about that," Zaleski said.
Christopher Hartlove, the Carroll school system's budget supervisor, warned board members and the audience at the budget hearing that the Carroll school district stands to lose as much as $4.9 million if further cuts are made to the state's landmark 2002 schools improvement program known as the Thornton Plan.
In his proposed operating budget, Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. has cut the increase in education aid by about $48 million. Hartlove told board members last night that Carroll's projected share of those cuts amounts to $535,000.
Union leader Hal Fox, who represents more than 2,500 teachers and faculty in the school system's two largest employee unions, challenged board members to resist the urge to cut anything from their budget request.
"We cannot continue to fund the budget on the cheap," Fox said.
The school system budget request now goes to the commissioners, who typically approve a spending plan for the county in May.