School board declines to specify where to cut budget

Prioritizing $735.9 million plan left to county officials

Anne Arundel

February 17, 2005|By Liz F. Kay | Liz F. Kay,SUN STAFF

Anne Arundel County school board members left decisions about possible budget cuts to county officials, adopting yesterday a budget that largely conformed to Superintendent Eric J. Smith's recommended spending plan for the next fiscal year.

A year after the school board reduced Smith's request in order to meet spending targets set by county leaders, board members unanimously approved a $735.9 million operating budget that county officials said they couldn't afford.

"We came up with a bottom line we know we're not going to get," board member Paul G. Rudolph said after the meeting.

The decision follows weeks of statements by parents at public meetings urging the board to "fully fund" the budget as proposed so that county officials understand the growing needs of the school system. A majority of board members last year had taken the approach that they - not county officials - were better equipped to set priorities.

But yesterday, with President Edward P. Carey absent because of illness, the board voted 4-3 not to forward a priority list to County Executive Janet S. Owens.

Yesterday's action troubled Owens, who will begin reviewing the school budget proposal next month.

"I am dismayed at the total, which is unrealistic," Owens said yesterday through a spokeswoman. "The County Council and I will have great challenges ahead."

The budget request includes several new initiatives recommended by Smith, including math and reading intervention programs, additional money for teacher classroom supplies and more middle school foreign language teachers.

`A common direction'

"It indicates that the board and I generally see a common direction for the district," Smith said after the meeting.

Now, Smith added, "the real responsibility rests with mom and dad at home," as well as business leaders, to tell elected officials what they want for their schools.

The total school budget recommended yesterday represents a 10 percent increase over last year's approved total. The county government's contribution to the school system budget would be nearly $49 million - 11 percent more than last year.

Board members debated several additions to Smith's budget but only approved two: $408,000 for the Advancement Via Individual Determination (AVID) program, which prepares students for college; and about $490,000 for 10 mentor teachers to nurture new instructors. They cut $100,000 that was earmarked to televise school board meetings.

Board members also approved a $79.7 million capital budget, adding $50,000 for a study to determine the future of the Freetown Elementary School building and $500,000 for new auditorium seats for Severna Park and Southern high schools.

Owens, who will receive the budget March 1, can cut funding for schools as she develops a total spending plan for the county. Owens presents her budget in May to County Council members, who also can shift or reduce the amount for schools before approving the budget by its June 1 deadline. Then the school board readjusts its budget based on the allocation.

Some school board members said yesterday they voted against removing items such as the expansion of the International Baccalaureate program to two middle schools because they wanted to preserve a cushion of funds they could shift should county officials make cuts.

"If we take it out today, we won't have it to take out in June," Rudolph said during the meeting.

Different approach

Last year, board members didn't have to reallocate funds in June because they scaled back Smith's request and subsequently got the money they sought from Owens and the council. Working off a poster-sized list of budget priorities, Carey last year drew a red line to show what would be funded.

Yesterday, board member Tricia Johnson proposed a similar process, urging board members to use a prioritized list of 40 items as a starting point for debate.

"If they [county officials] can see a list of things they [schools] need, maybe they can offer some help," she said. But four out of the seven present board members voted against her motion.

"I hope we haven't turned back the clock on a positive, productive relationship with the county executive and with the County Council," said Michael J. McNelly, who also supported the priority list.

Board member Eugene Peterson made three motions to increase funding for alternative education, but his colleagues did not support his efforts.

Rudolph suggested returning high schools to a seven-period day and using $33 million to add 55 minutes to each school day, increasing teacher workweeks to 40 hours. Smith said the effort would be impossible because registration for the next school year was under way. Board attorney P. Tyson Bennett advised that the school board would have to negotiate changes to workdays of employees covered by a union contract.

Cuts rejected

McNelly also tried unsuccessfully to cut three new spending proposals: expansion of the International Baccalaureate program, 48 additional teachers to reduce high school class size, and $175,000 for a public information officer.

"You try to spread what little pennies you have in the piggy bank among those kids," he said.

In other business, board members approved a change to the calendar for the 2005-2006 school year that added Dec. 23 and Jan. 2 to the Christmas and winter holiday, which currently lasts one week. To compensate, two days were added to the end of the school year.

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