Parents criticize board for cuts

Vote to significantly slash schools budget request draws angry comments

`Disregard for ... student need'

Members say reduction of $7 million is an effort to avoid clash with county

Anne Arundel

March 04, 2004|By Laura Loh | Laura Loh,SUN STAFF

The Anne Arundel County school board got an earful of angry comments yesterday from parents for cutting next year's schools budget request by more than $7 million in an effort to cooperate with cash-strapped county officials.

Parents said they were shocked that the school board abandoned long-awaited services and materials to forward a reduced $664.5 million operating budget request to County Executive Janet S. Owens.

Lynne Tucker, an advocate of gifted instruction and mother of a Davidsonville Elementary pupil, told the board that its decision represented "a total disregard for student educational need."

Among the cuts made by the board was more than $600,000 that Superintendent Eric J. Smith had requested to hire 13 gifted-instruction teachers for 26 elementary schools.

In a 6-to-1 vote last week, the board also cut Smith's textbook request by $3 million and opted to eliminate $540,000 needed to expand the International Baccalaureate program of advanced study into two middle schools. The board also turned down Smith's request to spend $500,000 more on alternative education services for troubled students and $320,000 for signing bonuses to attract teachers to high-poverty schools.

The school board also voted to forward a list of the $7.3 million worth of eliminated budget items, to show the county what had been sacrificed.

Board members said last week that their request was realistic, based on what the county said it could afford. They said they wanted to avoid a clash with the county in tight fiscal times.

The board's request, if granted, still would increase county funding by more than $31 million over the current year.

But critics of the reduced request - including board member Eugene Peterson, who voted against it - say the board's decision will give county officials the license to ignore many school system needs.

"I understand them not wanting to ask for the sky, but they should be asking for what we need," Sheila Finlayson, president of the county teachers union, said after the meeting.

Tucker accused board members of having political motives and wanting to ingratiate themselves with taxpayers and county officials. "The Board of Education budget process is designed to put forth the educational needs of our county students ... not to feather the beds of future political careers," Tucker said.

But board President Paul G. Rudolph said after the meeting that he is concerned that some in the public do not understand the board's strategy. "What the board did was to try a different tack ... to see that if we are told we can get a certain amount of money, will the county honor that," Rudolph said.

He acknowledged that because the board did not ask for everything the school system will need next school year, it will have to reshuffle the budget in coming months. The board will have to take from some areas to cover unavoidable expenses, such as increases in utility costs and private school tuition for severely disabled students, he said.

Leaders of parent organizations said they have been bombarded with questions from parents concerned about reductions to a budget request that the superintendent already felt was "lean."

Debbie Ritchie, president of the Council of PTAs, asked the board to reconsider the impact of the cuts on children and to better explain its actions to the community. "It is your responsibility to ensure that parents understand that they are important to the process, that their opinions hold value," Ritchie said.

Sam Georgiou, chairman of the county's Citizens Advisory Committee, told the board he was puzzled about what to do next. This is the time of year when parents and teachers typically begin lobbying the county executive and County Council to fund the schools budget request.

"How can we advocate for additional education funding, when we don't appear to be supported by the board?" Georgiou asked.

Annapolis parent Steve Johnson said the situation reminded him of a Greek myth in which a robber named Procrustes would offer a bed to travelers, then stretch or cut off their limbs to make them fit in it.

"This board is not authorized to chop up our children to fit the needs of a county budget that has been pre-strangled," Johnson said.

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