Schools may shift funds

Officials are aiming to restore projects county cut from budget

June 04, 2006|By ANICA BUTLER | ANICA BUTLER,SUN REPORTER

Anne Arundel County school officials, while generally pleased with the county budget adopted last week, said they will look at ways to fund some projects that were left off the table.

The County Council last week approved a budget that provides raises of 6 percent to teachers, money to hire 191 teachers and 50 aides to reduce teacher workload, and more than $50 million for school construction projects.

"I think the county did an excellent job. I think the county executive addressed a lot of our priorities," school board member Eugene Peterson said of the spending plan.

But some school system officials, school board members and parents expressed disappointment about items left out of the nearly $789 million operating budget and $107.4 million capital budget approved for the school system.

Among the items cut from the budget are the International Baccalaureate Middle Years program, a tracking system that would check school visitors against sex offender databases, funds for a study on alternative education and money to build walls at schools with open floor plans.

Some board members said yesterday that they would seek ways to shift money toward some of those projects.

"When we start analyzing the budget, we need to find out the priorities and where they can be met," said Tricia Johnson, vice president of the school board. "It's always a trade-off, unfortunately. We don't have enough funds."

The school board will complete its budget analysis and spending plan at its June 21 meeting.

While previous budgets have led to acrimonious debates between county leaders and school board members, this year's spending plan generated little controversy.

Interim Superintendent Nancy M. Mann recommended a budget that ranked priorities and stayed within anticipated county funding.

In turn, County Executive Janet S. Owens took advantage of soaring revenues to fund many of the priorities that Mann and the school board identified.

The spending proposal included $200,000 to plan for a proposed math-and-science magnet program at Meade High School, along with funds for a new International Baccalaureate program there; and $50.5 million to complete construction projects at Tracey's, Pasadena, Gambrills and Lake Shore elementary schools, Severna Park Middle and Arundel High.

For the third time, the school system was turned down on funding for the Middle Years program, a precursor to the prestigious high school International Baccalaureate program.

The Middle Years program is open to a wider range of students than the high school IB, and the board had sought $146,000 to begin the program at three middle schools.

"I'm concerned we didn't fund the Middle Years program again," Peterson said. "We need to address the emerging problems [at the middle schools] before they become a crisis. ... Middle Years would have been a positive step in the right direction."

Eric Sullivan, chairman of the county citizens' advisory committee, said there is no consensus among committee members about the program, but that parents in Annapolis heavily favor it. Supportive parents plan to show up at Wednesday's Board of Education meeting to urge that the funding be replaced.

Board members can shuffle money within spending categories to fund items that were cut by the county executive or the County Council.

However, if the board wishes to move money from one spending category to another, it must get approval from the council, according to Dennis Hirsch, the school system's director of budget and finance.

Peterson said that he would support scaling back the planned swimming program to fund Middle Years.

The school budget includes $280,000 to make swimming a varsity sport at all county high schools.

Peterson said that if other board members agree, an expanded swimming program could be funded in the fiscal 2008 budget.

"If it comes down to a full-fledged swimming program or a program that's going to spur academic achievement in an under-enrolled middle school in Annapolis," then he would vote for a scaled-back swimming program, he said.

Board member Enrique Melendez said that he wasn't sure what he would cut from the budget, but that he also supports finding money for the Middle Years program.

"If we don't get the kids early, they'll never get into IB," he said.

Peterson said he also is disappointed that $500,000 for a study on alternative education was cut from the capital budget.

Other items that were not funded included the $300,000 tracking system that would have checked visitors to school properties against sex offender databases, using a computer station near the entrance of each school property.

The system also would have kept track of the hours logged by school volunteers, which was the primary reason the technology was sought, said Teresa Tudor, the schools' administrator of volunteer programs.

"While we're disappointed it was not included in the budget, I am still hopeful that we will be able to find the funds in the current budget to buy the software. It's something that schools and principals are telling us they really need," she said.

The County Council put some funds back into the budget that were cut by the county executive. The members replaced $500,000 of a $2 million request for security upgrades to the capital budget, bringing the total to more than $1.5 million.

The school system had also asked for $3 million to create walls and partitions in county schools that were built with open floor plans.

Owens declined to fund the project in her version of the budget, but the County Council replaced more than $500,000.

anica.butler@baltsun.com

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