School cuts alarm board

Superintendent proposes delays in renovations and forgoing new hires


In pinpointing $18.2 million in cuts in the school system's operating and capital budgets for the coming school year, Superintendent Sydney L. Cousin managed to protect classroom instruction, but he proposed delaying school renovation projects and forgoing new guidance counselors and other student-services staff members.

The cuts are deep enough that school board members have urged parents and staff members to turn out in full force at Saturday's public hearing on the budget and to pressure the County Council to restore the cuts.

"It's our job to go to the County Council and not take no for an answer," board member Courtney Watson said Thursday as Cousin outlined places where he said the system will need to tighten its belt.

The superintendent's recommendation was a response to County Executive James N. Robey's decision to propose less than the school system had sought when he outlined his county budget.

Robey recommended a school operating budget of $393.5 million, $3 million less than the school system had requested, and a capital budget that included $14.6 million less than the amount school officials wanted.

To make do with the amounts Robey recommended, the superintendent has proposed trimming money to hire two guidance counselors, a psychologist, a pupil personnel worker and five custodians. He also would slash $50,000 for grounds maintenance and $384,000 for maintenance of older schools, among other cuts.

On the capital side, the superintendent proposes delays for a $9 million renovation and addition at the empty Cedar Lane School in Columbia, a $3.6 million renovation of Clarksville Middle School, $1.1 million for a new maintenance facility and $900,000 for a survey that would measure the equity of school facilities.

Pam Blackwell, director of student services, said the system requested the additional guidance counselors, psychologist and pupil personnel employees because of enrollment growth.

"We will continue looking at priority areas to support these students and their families. [The staff members] will do what they need to do to make things happen for families and students," she said.

At Thursday's meeting, board member Patricia Gordon stressed the importance of guidance counselors, saying, "We need them as much as the teachers in the classrooms. I'm extremely saddened that our mental health workers are being recommended for reduction."

Watson was adamant about financing school maintenance projects, especially for older schools.

"If we fund the new schools, we have to fund the old schools," Watson said.

Diane Mikulis, the board's vice chairman, said the system will continue to have problems with older buildings if upkeep is postponed. The system faces difficulties in deciding what to cut, she said.

"Short of going into the classroom [for budget cuts], these are our options," Mikulis said.

Mary Jane Barbato-Grauso, president of the PTA Council of Howard County, said she is concerned about the proposed cuts, especially those associated with school maintenance.

"Our older schools are not getting the attention they need," Barbato-Grauso said. "You spend $50 million on schools, you can't let it go to the wayside."

The County Council, which can restore money to the school system's budgets, will hold its first public hearing Saturday to discuss them. The board will adopt both budgets as funded by the County Council on May 26.

Joshua Kaufman, the school board chairman, urged the public to "besiege" the County Council at Saturday's meeting and demand that the school system receive full funding. He also said he remains optimistic that the board will be able to persuade the council to restore money.

Board member Mary Kay Sigaty said it is premature to make assumptions about what will be funded. She suggested that the school system explore using some of the $975,000 budgeted for portable classrooms during the 2006-2007 school year.

"We need to go to the County Council," Sigaty said. "That's our first stop."

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