It may have taken months of hearings and discussions to get there, but when the Howard County school board approved this year's operating and capital budgets in less than 20 minutes, the unanimous vote reflected one of the smoothest budget cycles in years.
"It certainly is one we went through with the least angst and contention," board member Patricia Gordon, who has sat through six budget processes, said of Thursday's vote on the budget covering the coming school year. The board formally adopted both budgets after action by the County Council.
The key: The board received most of what it had requested for the fiscal 2007 budget, and was spared the need to make painful decisions about what to cut in the way of major programs or projects.
The board adopted a $551.5 million operating budget that includes funds for 130 new teaching positions, increases teachers' salaries by 3.5 percent, provides $70.1 million for special education and adds all-day kindergarten at 10 elementary schools, among other expenditures.
The operating budget also includes $989,000 to increase the base salary of teachers to fourth in the state, up from eighth. The ranking is based on current statistics and does not reflect several school systems that are in contract negotiations.
The budget also will increase salaries on the first five steps of the teacher scale. For example, a first-year teacher will now make $40,080, up from $38,971. The increase is the result of a two-year contract negotiated last winter with the Howard County Education Association.
Ann DeLacy, president of the Howard County Education Association, said she was pleased with the increase, but she would like the system's teachers to be ranked first in the state.
"If you have people producing at such a high level and live in one of the richest counties in the state, we should be No. 1," DeLacy said, adding that the support staff also needs an increase in pay.
The board also approved $88.4 million for capital spending, including $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.
Despite the system's request for more funds this year, Diane Mikulis, the board's vice chairman, said both budgets are extremely responsible.
"It's not a luxury budget by any means," Mikulis said.
The board was not able to approve everything up for consideration. Items left unfunded include $600,000 for maintenance supplies and $190,000 for media supplies at the new northeastern elementary school, scheduled to open in August 2007.
Superintendent Sydney L. Cousin has started looking ahead to the needs of the 2008 fiscal year.
Cousin said last week that he is worried about high school assessment tests, now more important than ever because of a state standard that requires all current freshmen to pass to graduate.
"We have to make sure that all of our students achieve academically so that they can be proficient on these assessments that are required by regulations to receive a high school diploma," he said.
The school system continues to struggle with performance lags among minority students.
"We have a gap that we need to close with student groups in meeting the standards," Cousin said. "That's where our emphasis will lie in the future."