School officials explain rising cost of programs

County must pay the bills for state, federal initiatives

August 06, 2004|By Mary Gail Hare | Mary Gail Hare,SUN STAFF

The county commissioners asked why the costs of several education programs are increasing significantly, and yesterday school officials answered, attributing the rising costs to state and federal regulations that leave the funding to local governments.

Harry T. Fogle, assistant superintendent of school management, outlined several areas where the county will have to pay the bulk of the costs, including special education, full-day kindergarten and pre-kindergarten programs and transportation.

As many as 10 Carroll elementary schools will need about $18 million worth of new construction - bricks and mortar as opposed to portable classrooms - to accommodate all-day kindergarten, a state requirement by the 2007 school year, Fogle told the commissioners.

The additional instructors and qualified assistants for special-education programs, as well as intensive training programs and technology improvements for special education, could add nearly $2.5 million to the schools budget next year, he added.

The transportation costs of the public school choice program that would allow parents to transfer children to schools with a higher ratings standard are nearly impossible to estimate, he said.

"As the state continues to face significant fiscal burdens, the resolution of these requirements will have a local impact," said Steven Powell, the commissioners' chief of staff. "These problems face every jurisdiction in the state."

Non-compliance with federal regulations could lead to the loss of federal education money, but compliance creates a financial burden on the county, Fogle said, and he gave several examples.

Instructional aides in special-education programs must have at least an associate's degree by the 2005 school year. That entails salary increases that would cost the school system about $100,000 a year.

Federal law also requires teachers to be "highly qualified" in a specific area when hired and for the county to report on teacher qualifications, officials said.

"We can no longer hire a good candidate and then help them get credentials," said Steve Guthrie, assistant superintendent of school administration. "We need extra recruiting efforts."

Also, the county must develop the technology that will allow parents to access information on student progress.

"We have to assign staff to report to the state and to parents," Guthrie said. "This time takes away from other tasks."

Carroll is the only school system in Maryland to escape the state's "needs improvement" rating for any of its schools, Guthrie said. But should any school's rating drop, parents would have the option of transferring their children to a better school. That policy could leave some schools with empty desks while others become crowded.

"This is a potentially huge problem for us," said Ted Zaleski, director of management and budget. "You could have a small number of kids not making progress and then the whole school is not making progress. Parents could choose to send their children to another school. We could get to the place where we are forced to build schools to provide capacity that is really not needed."

Officials continue to plan for all-day kindergarten while trying to persuade legislators in the next General Assembly session to eliminate or delay the 2007 deadline.

"We are doing a better job educating children in kindergarten through third grade now than any time in our entire history," Fogle said.

Del. Susan W. Krebs, a former school board president, said Carroll students have repeatedly shown themselves to be prepared for first grade without spending all day in kindergarten.

"The state is making us spend dollars on this program instead of others that we really need," she said. "It is frustrating being forced to do this. But, our pleas fall on deaf ears."

In addition to costly renovations at 10 schools, several others will allocate space to the program and add more children to elementary classrooms. Four of the county's 21 elementary schools - Taneytown, William Winchester, Robert Moton and Cranberry Station - will each house one full-day kindergarten classroom in the fall. The plan is to add four more schools next year and the remaining 13 schools in 2006 and 2007, Fogle said.

The county is also considering adding six centers to its three programs for pre-kindergartners. No state funding will be available for the expected increase in preschool enrollment.

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