School budget request trimmed

Board cuts $7.3 million from Smith's proposal for next fiscal year

Anne Arundel

February 26, 2004|By Laura Loh | Laura Loh,SUN STAFF

In an unexpected move yesterday, the Anne Arundel County school board cut more than $7 million from Superintendent Eric J. Smith's proposed budget for next fiscal year, eliminating money for several of his academic initiatives while making a priority of teacher pay raises and benefits.

Board members said their $664.5 million operating budget request is in line with the county's revenue projections for the fiscal year that begins July 1.

The request would increase this year's budget by $31.4 million, or 5 percent.

"It is about time that we changed our approach in dealing with the county executive and County Council," board member Michael McNelly said. "We never took ownership of the budget [in past years]. We just sent forward a bunch of numbers, and we said to [the county], `You gotta be the bad guys.'"

Yesterday marked the school board's first significant departure from a course charted by Smith, whom it hired nearly two years ago to improve the Anne Arundel school system's average performance.

Smith, formerly the Charlotte, N.C., superintendent, said he is disappointed by the board's vote but doesn't think his relationship with the board has soured.

"I don't see it as a division between me and the board," he said after the meeting.

The budget request will be forwarded to County Executive Janet S. Owens, who can make further cuts. The County Council will vote on the plan in June.

In shaving $7.3 million from Smith's request, the school board scrapped proposals for nearly $3 million worth of new textbooks; additional teachers for gifted pupils in elementary schools; financial incentives to attract teachers to high-poverty schools; and a plan to increase alternative education services for students with behavioral problems.

Board member Edward Carey, who made the motion to scale back Smith's budget request, said he would have supported those programs if financial conditions were better.

"It's our job to submit a budget request that is responsible," said Carey, a Brooklyn Park resident. "Why would you knowingly send something forward that's going to be cut?"

The board also cut money for projected increases in utility costs and private-school tuition for blind and disabled students.

Only board member Eugene Peterson opposed the motion, which passed 6-1. Board member Anthony Spencer was absent.

"I'm very sad that we're taking this approach," Peterson said. "It's not in the interest of our children. It sends a message to ... the community that we can live with less."

On a motion made by McNelly, the board also voted yesterday to hire two additional teachers for students who are not native English speakers and three permanent substitute teacher's aides for special education schools. Board members did that by shifting $174,000 out of the public information department, the school system's liaison for residents and the media.

Board members said they hope their decision to cut the budget request will improve relations with the county, which have been strained recently.

Last year's budget talks became confrontational when Owens cut raises for school employees, saying the county could not afford them, but left in money for new programs important to Smith, who was in his first year as superintendent.

Teachers and parents rallied outside schools and county buildings in protest, saying county officials cared more about programs than about staff members. The dispute over the raises spilled over into this year, as the school board, against the county executive's wishes, sought to grant scaled-back pay increases.

Board members said they hope their latest request makes their commitment to teachers clear to county officials. "I hope they won't touch the teachers," Carey said.

Board member Tricia Johnson said she hopes for better communication with county leaders. "This new process requires the County Council and county executive to be completely honest with us about what revenues they have," she said.

County budget officials told the school board in November that the county would probably be able to contribute about $20 million toward the schools' budget increase, a little more than half of what Smith sought.

Board members repeatedly brought up that figure yesterday as they debated which items to keep in the budget.

The $31.4 million increase that the board settled on would require about $22.7 million from the county's general fund. The rest would come from federal and state education funds.

Smith said after the meeting that he hopes the school board's frugal approach is successful. He defended his proposal, saying, "We cut millions out. This was what I felt was absolutely essential."

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