Owens vetoes school funding in protest

$3.5 million is revoked as leaders question pay raise made without public input

Anne Arundel

August 27, 2004|By Childs Walker and Liz F. Kay | Childs Walker and Liz F. Kay,SUN STAFF

Anne Arundel County Executive Janet S. Owens vetoed a $3.5 million appropriation to the county schools yesterday with support from the County Council, saying she and the council were protesting $625,000 in raises for school administrators included in the county's 2005 budget without public discussion.

The $3.5 million allocation, passed by the County Council earlier this month, included none of the raise money but would have provided funds for gifted and talented programs, library materials and a summer academy at Van Bokkelen Elementary School in Severn.

It was unclear yesterday what impact the loss of the money would have on school operations as classes start Monday. Council members said they are open to another budget request and want to fund the expanded gifted program and library materials but expect school officials to make up for the $625,000 in raises.

The raises were part of the overall $440.7 million school budget approved by the County Council in May. The $3.5 million supplemental appropriation vetoed yesterday was approved Aug. 16.

Owens and the council are using the veto - her fifth in almost six years in office - as leverage to alter the original budget, which they say was presented in bad faith and without adequate explanation.

They said they cannot support sweeping raises that would increase some administrative salaries as much as 14.75 percent. They also questioned why employees are given credit for experience in other school systems when calculating raises.

The council's decision to support Owens' veto of a bill it passed less than two weeks ago is highly unusual. But council members, six of whom indicated their support for a veto in a letter delivered to Owens Wednesday, said they felt school leaders tried to slip the raises by them.

"I think we were certainly up in arms about the pay increases, and I think we wanted to send a message that we're not going to do business like this," said Council President C. Edward Middlebrooks.

Superintendent Eric J. Smith defended the raises, saying Anne Arundel's salaries generally are not competitive and arguing that few senior administrators will choose to come to Anne Arundel if they have to sacrifice experience earned elsewhere.

"This is a good strategic investment for the county," Smith said.

But school board members seemed as shocked at the raises as their County Council peers.

Paul Rudolph, who was president of the school board during the budget process, said he was surprised by the magnitude of the increases and that people hired less than a year ago would receive them. He said he plans to say at the board's next meeting Wednesday, "I am ashamed of myself that I did not do my homework."

The administrative pay increases largely are the result of "step" increases awarded by the Board of Education to employees with 28 years or more of service. The raises, worth between $4,000 and $16,000, apply to about 60 administrators, most of whom make more than $70,000 a year and many of whom - including Smith and Deputy Superintendent Kenneth Lawson - make more than $100,000 a year.

The County Council and school leaders long have clashed over raises, with council members questioning the amount of money given to administrative salaries.

"In this age, when money is tight and there are many, many needs in the schools, this doesn't seem like the most appropriate way to spend," said Councilman Ronald C. Dillon Jr., a Pasadena Republican.

The school board also faced council scrutiny after holding a private vote to approve some of the raises in December. The state's Open Meetings Compliance Board later found that the vote did not violate sunshine laws.

Six of the seven council members indicated support for Owens' veto in phone conversations with Middlebrooks. Councilwoman Pamela G. Beidle abstained because she is related to a school administrator.

The council had the power to cut the raises before passing the county budget in May, but members face a barrage of information during sessions leading to the budget vote and said they rely on department heads such as the superintendent to disclose important budget points.

They said Smith did not bring up the raises, a point they would have expected him to cover.

"The devil's in the details, and the school administration did not make us aware of the details," said Councilwoman Cathleen M. Vitale, a Severna Park Republican. Vitale said the council will demand more specific information on school salaries in future years.

School board members raised similar concerns.

"While the board did not ask detailed questions, the superintendent certainly did not provide those details to us before they were implemented," said board member Michael J. McNelly.

Smith defended his handling of the raise issue.

"The contracts and additional steps were discussed with and recommended and approved with the school board," Smith said. "All of these issues followed the budget process that the budget would require."

It was unclear yesterday what will happen next. Council members and school officials said they don't want money taken from gifted and talented programs or libraries. Council members said they would welcome another budget request, but that they expect the school board to cover part of the $3.5 million with money that would go to salary increases under the current budget.

"We've made it very clear that all of us support the gifted and talented, the library and the other programs," Middlebrooks said.

School board members said they expect to discuss possible solutions at their meeting Wednesday.

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