Record schools budget of $654 million passes

But county plans to cut its share

March 01, 2006|By JOHN-JOHN WILLIAMS IV | JOHN-JOHN WILLIAMS IV,SUN REPORTER

The Howard County Board of Education approved a record $654.5 million yesterday for the 2007 operating and capital budgets, knowing that the county plans to fund less money than a year ago.

The board has requested $87.1 million from the county but received word last month from County Executive James N. Robey's office that the county intended to fund $64.2 million, a $7 million decrease from last year.

Still, the board increased by $205,500 a previously proposed operating budget of $554.3 million by Superintendent Sydney L. Cousin and made no changes to a $99.975 million capital budget request.

Robey defended the amount the county plans to fund for education, which accounts for 55 percent of the county's operating budget.

"There are other capital needs that we need to fund too - the library, community college, county buildings, roads, bridges, fire station," Robey said, adding that there are requests for the construction of two fire stations and a library in Ellicott City.

Robey added: "As the person who provides the money for the majority of the budget, I have to look at the entire needs of the county."

The decrease in county funds could delay much-needed renovation projects at Worthington Elementary School and Clarksville Middle School, according to board members. Renovations at Centennial Lane and Clarksville elementary schools are not expected to be affected because both are in the second year of funding.

"That bothers me a great deal," Del. Elizabeth Bobo, a Howard County Democrat, said of the possible delays. "I can't lay all of the responsibility on the board. They are not the ones who approved land use for more housing. But, the board has a responsibility to speak up against land use."

The 2007 capital budget also includes $15 million for a northeastern elementary school; $20.5 million for a replacement building for Bushy Park Elementary; and about $4 million for additions at Waverly, Centennial Lane and Running Brook elementary schools.

"Because of new growth, we are not getting funding to build new schools and maintain old schools," said board member Courtney Watson.

Bobo said she was unaware that the county plans to decrease its funding by $7 million.

"The delegation meets tomorrow, and I will bring this up," she said from her Annapolis office.

Howard County received $15.2 million last year from the state. Joshua Kaufman, the board chairman, said the state has promised $12.7 million this year.

Over the next few months, board members will do their best trying to justify to county politicians increasing the operating budget by over $50 million from the current year.

"It is a daunting task," said member Mary Kay Sigaty. "It is important for our education community to know that this budget is driven by mandates. It's time for the community to take an active role in the budget process."

The budget has been sent to Robey, who can make revisions. The board will then adjust to any changes made by Robey. The County Council has the power to restore money to the budget.

Public meetings on the county's budget will be held March 9 and May 6 in the County Council Conference Room. The Board of Education is scheduled to adopt the final capital and operating budgets at 2 p.m. May 23.

The operating budget would fund 130 new teaching positions; increase teachers' salaries by 3.5 percent; provide $70.1 million for special education, an increase of $4.8 million; spend $1.5 million to add all-day kindergarten at 10 elementary schools; and pay for $10 million in employee benefits.

The 9.9 percent increase to the 2007 operating budget is attributed to higher gas prices, rising health care and improved teachers' salaries.

Cousin's proposed budget, which was unveiled in January, was increased yesterday by $205,500. Those increases funded legal fees, employee benefits and Hispanic student academic intervention in the villages of Wilde Lake, Oakland Mills and Owen Brown.

john-john.williams@baltsun.com

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