Schools to make cuts in budget

Strategies sought to cover shortfall of $8.4 million

`We'll find ways to make it work'

Aim is to make reductions in nonclassroom areas

April 27, 2005|By Hanah Cho | Hanah Cho,SUN STAFF

The Howard County Board of Education begins searching for places to cut its $512.6 million operating budget tomorrow as it looks to make up an $8.4 million funding shortfall.

Superintendent Sydney L. Cousin is expected to present a list of mostly nonclassroom areas where spending can be reduced, including possibly moving items to the school system's capital budget.

"In order to make up the shortfall of $8.4 million, we're looking for things that will have the least impact on classrooms," Cousin said.

The school board had sought $371 million from the county but received $362.6 million under County Executive James N. Robey's budget proposal for the fiscal year that starts July 1. Still, the shortfall is less than the cuts of up to $12 million school officials had initially feared based on Robey's goal of keeping the school budget to an increase of no more than 7 percent this year.

The board's proposed $512.6 million budget - which includes state and federal funds, along with county money - would offer a 3 percent pay raise and step increases for teachers next year.

"We're in much better shape than we've anticipated," said Courtney Watson, the school board chairman. "We'll find ways to make it work. We'll try to make reasonable, rational and balanced decisions."

Cousin declined to reveal specifics on his recommendations but offered general ideas on where the cuts would - and would not - be made.

One option is for the school board to recoup some of the deficit by moving spending items from its operating budget to next year's proposed $87.4 million capital budget, Cousin said. For the first time in as many years, the capital budget is expected to be fully funded because of an increase in state money for school construction.

`More flexibility'

"It gives us more flexibility in dealing with the capital budget," he said.

Staffing is another potential area for cuts, Cousin said. He and his top administrative staff are re-examining enrollment figures for next year, as well as looking at staff turnover to find positions that could go unfilled.

One spending category not up for discussion is textbook replacement. Fiscal constraints forced the school board to defer filling this need in previous years. In his budget proposal, Cousin restored the $2.5 million for textbooks that was eliminated last year, and he wants to keep that intact.

"That's not something that's being considered because that does have an impact on the classroom," Cousin said, adding that the money could put the book substitution schedule back on an eight-year, rather than 10-year, cycle.

Another area where the school board has looked for cuts in previous years is building and campus maintenance, though Cousin said the school system can't continue to do that.

`Catch up with us'

"Ultimately, this stuff will catch up with us even though it does not have a direct impact on instruction," he said.

In discussing potential reductions before adopting its budget May 26, the school board will look to "protect the classroom first," Watson said.

"Obviously, teachers' salary is our No. 1 priority," she said. "Beyond that, we'll be looking to protect areas that have suffered repeated cuts in prior years, such as textbooks."

Last year, the school board had to cut $12 million from its original request.

The County Council - which plans a public hearing on the education budget May 7 - has authority to restore only school funds not provided by Robey.

"Every year, there is a manipulation between the school's operating and capital budgets to get as much as we can out of the budget," said County Council Chairman Guy Guzzone, a North Laurel-Savage Democrat. "I don't expect any significant changes, though. Something may come out of the public hearing that may change wherever we are."

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