Ways to bolster school budget being sought

Council Democrats want to restore part of $3.6 million reduction in system's request


Howard County Council Democrats are searching for ways to restore part of a $3.6 million reduction in the school system's budget request to pay for additional guidance counselors, custodians and a school psychologist.

With formal council work sessions on the $1.2 billion Robey administration budget completed Wednesday, potential tweaks to the school budget and the fate of $2 million in capital budget requests for renovations on the historic Belmont estate in Elkridge are all that appear in question.

Council Chairman Christopher J. Merdon, an Ellicott City Republican, said he is prepared to support County Executive James N. Robey's operating budget "as suggested."

He said he is not going to offer an amendment to cut the income tax rate rather than the 3-cent property tax rate reduction that Robey proposed.

`Political turmoil'

"It would just promote more political turmoil," Merdon said. Although chairman, Merdon now has only one other supporter on tax issues -- western county Republican Charles C. Feaga. The resignation in March of former Councilman David A. Rakes and his replacement by Calvin Ball gives Democrats a three-vote majority on the five-member council.

Ball and fellow Democrats Guy Guzzone and Ken Ulman said they would like to find a way to give the schools more money, but none will tamper with Robey's tax cut. Eliminating one penny from the 3-cent rate reduction would provide exactly $3.6 million more in revenue.

"I think the positions are important to the functioning of the school system," Ball said after Wednesday's meeting.

"I'm actively working to find places" to get money for the Board of Education, Ulman said.

Feaga remained angry about the way Democrats found $3 million to divert from plans for a new Columbia fire station to renovations at Clarksville Middle School.

The Democrats, he said, must have known earlier that the $3 million would not be needed next year for the Banneker Station replacement, making their rescue of the Clarksville project suspect in his mind.

"I think it's a cheap political stunt," Feaga said.

Robey and Guzzone denied that.

"I've been busting my butt to find a site for that station this year," Robey said.

Merdon said he supports the shift to help Clarksville, a 29-year-old building that has never had major renovations.

8 1/2 positions

School Superintendent Sydney L. Cousin told the council Wednesday that without the $3.6 million that Robey did not fund, the board would be forced to cut 8 1/2 positions among other things. That includes two guidance counselors, a half-position school psychologist, a pupil personnel worker and five custodians.

All are important, Cousin said. Custodians, for example, are being stretched to clean 182 portable classrooms, some with extra bathrooms, and they need help.

"At this point, we're straining the ability of the system for cleanliness," Ken Roye, the school facilities director, told the council.

On Belmont, several members said they are considering objections raised by Preservation Howard County President Mary Catherine Cochran to include $2 million in renovation money in the capital budget.

""I feel strongly that before we dedicate any money to Belmont, the county should gain ownership," said Merdon, who represents Elkridge, site of the 81-acre property.

Merdon said he is seeking an opinion from the county's Office of Law to see whether the council can approve money for renovations to the carriage house and barn contingent on the county getting clear title to the property.

Cochran testified last month that title to the Belmont property might not be legally clear because of a contract the owners have with developer Harry L. "Chip" Lundy giving him some rights to potentially develop housing on up to 33 acres there. Lundy has vowed not to impede any plans the county has for Belmont.

Belmont is owned by the Howard Community College Educational Foundation, and the college is operating the conference and banquet facility now. Robey said in March that the county government will buy the estate and lease it back to the college to quell objections over its management.

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