A year after the Anne Arundel school board spared the County Council from having to make deep cuts to the school budget, community leaders, parents and union leaders are pushing the board to seek full funding for the superintendent's proposed spending plan.
Speakers at several recent meetings said the board members should act as education advocates and forward the $773.1 million budget to county officials as it stands, to provide a full picture of the school system's needs.
"We need to make sure that not only the public but also the county executive and County Council realize the implications of not fully funding initiatives and programs," county Council of PTAs President Debbie Ritchie told the board at its Dec. 15 meeting. "They need to know what the impact will be for our students in the long run."
But most board members say they need to set priorities and make difficult choices themselves, rather than passing that responsibility on to county leaders - though they have some questions about how much money ultimately is available.
"We're put there to make tough decisions. They may be unpopular, but we need to control our own destiny," said board President Edward P. Carey.
"It's real easy just to rubber-stamp the superintendent's recommendation, but why would you need a board of education if that's what you did?" said board member Michael J. McNelly.
County officials said they appreciate having the school board, whose members know the needs of the system, decide what's critical.
"If we're not told what the priorities are, we have to figure out to the best of our abilities what the priorities are," said County Council Chairman Ron Dillon Jr.
Each year, school board members modify the superintendent's proposal and forward it to the county executive, Janet S. Owens. She then creates a spending plan incorporating needs, such as public safety and infrastructure, which she sends to the County Council.
By June, council members approve the final budget. School board members then allocate the funds they've received.
Board members surprised some last year when they, at the last minute, shaved $7.3 million from Superintendent Eric J. Smith's proposed 2004-2005 school budget to meet the target set by county leaders.
Smith later made some changes to restore some pared-away items, including additional gifted-and-talented program teachers, library materials and mandatory things such as tuition for disabled students placed at private schools.
The county executive and council members didn't cut the request further and funded the entire $665.4 million proposal.
Last year "it was a very smooth budgetary process." said county budget director John Hammond.
"One of the things we really wanted to try very hard as we put together the [fiscal] 2006 budget was not to have the acrimony that we had when we put together the [fiscal] 2004 budget," Hammond said.
Two years ago, school board members supported raises for school employees and new initiatives. Faced with a difficult decision, Owens funded Smith's programs but not the salary increases, which angered members of the teachers union.
Methods like this did not endear the board to county officials, McNelly said. "It did not create a good working environment with the people who sign your checks," he said.
Maryland's school boards don't levy taxes; they rely on revenue allocated to them by the county executive and council.
At Thursday's public hearing, teachers' union President Sheila M. Finlayson presented a report by a private budget consultant. It showed that the county may have underestimated its revenues - and overestimated expenditures - during the past two fiscal years, leaving a potential $58.8 million surplus.
But the final total set by the board is the maximum that can be allocated to the school system, Hammond said. Neither Owens nor County Council members can add money to the school budget beyond the total set by the board members (though supplemental allocations may be possible later through a separate approval process), he said.
Smith said he's asked for nearly $64 million in additional funds to pay for required programs such as full-day kindergarten, as well as additional teachers and programs to reduce workloads.
The superintendent said that if the budget were cut, he would try to trim in other areas, not where he's proposed increases.
However, he doesn't feel there is much he can reduce. "We're just down to the essentials," Smith said.
County officials won't know that unless the board presents all of the system's financial challenges, former school board president Carlesa R. Finney argued. "The budget is the only vehicle for the public and politicians to know what we need to provide a quality education," Finney said last week. She addressed the board at its Jan. 5 meeting.
Finney agreed that board members have tough decisions to make but said the time to make those choices is after the council decides how much to allocate.