Saying the school system can be one of the country's best - and that the county can afford to pay for it - Anne Arundel schools superintendent Kevin M. Maxwell has proposed a $920 million budget for next year.
The operating budget, which he outlined to the school board on Wednesday, calls for a $131 million increase, or 17 percent, to expand special education services, pre-K and all-day kindergarten programs; bolster security; update technology; and launch the International Baccalaureate program at Meade High School and precursor programs at three middle schools. It also funds a previously negotiated 6 percent salary increase for teachers.
"You and I share a passion to take this school system from good to great, to make it the best in the state and one of the best in the nation," said Maxwell, who came to the county in July from the Montgomery County school system. "With your support we can get there, but we all know getting there comes with a price tag."
Referencing the state's and county's relative prosperity, Maxwell said: "I ask you to remember that Anne Arundel County is the fifth-largest school system in one of the wealthiest states in the nation."
The call for excellence may put into stark focus the level of education the county, constrained by a tax cap, is willing to spend in a belt-tightening year, given other pressing funding demands.
"Maybe it's a shot across the bow to reshape public opinion on the need for greater funding ... to make the price tag more apparent," said Dan Nataf, director for the Center for the Study of Local Issues at Anne Arundel Community College.
County Executive John R. Leopold appeared receptive to the budget proposal after reviewing the spending plan with Maxwell on Tuesday.
"Excellence costs, but the failure to provide excellent public education entails greater costs," said Leopold, who applauded Maxwell's emphasis on early education intervention.
Leopold, however, said he must weigh the welfare of the school system with "a whole menu of priority considerations."
The county faces several expenses that will total in the billions of dollars: road upgrades and an expansion of mass transit around Fort Meade; the negotiation of 10 union contracts; growing commitments for retirees' health care; and school construction and renovations.
Since taking office last month, Leopold has imposed a hiring freeze on about 200 positions, cut nearly $1 million from his cabinet and asked department heads to cut their budgets by 5 to 10 percent.
The county executive also vowed in the fall campaign that he would not raise taxes.
"We will not have all of the money to solve the needs," said County Councilman C. Edward Middlebrooks, a Severn Republican. "It will be interesting to see how the county executive makes these decisions."
School officials said that the system has been historically underfunded and that a sizable infusion is needed to raise performance and eliminate achievements gaps among racial and socio-economic groups. Maxwell's call to close those gaps drew a rousing ovation at the crowded Board of Education meeting.
Maxwell said the budget would need to rise by $76 million just to maintain existing service levels. Maxwell took over as Anne Arundel superintendent ago, leaving a top-level administration position in Montgomery County.
The schools budget would pay for at least 332 new teachers, administrators and support staff. Funds would also be used to provide security at all 12 high schools and 19 middle schools, offer all-day kindergarten at the 17 remaining elementary schools and reduce teacher workloads.
"He has presented a budget that matches our needs," school board President Tricia Johnson said yesterday.
In his address, the superintendent referenced state figures from the 2004-2005 academic year that showed that Howard County spends about $1,100 more per student than Anne Arundel County ($9,929 vs. $8,810), despite Anne Arundel ranking higher in wealth-per-student (fifth) than Howard (sixth).
"We must ask ourselves why students in Howard County receive over 12 percent more money from their county than students here in Anne Arundel receive for their education each year," Maxwell said.
School officials have acknowledged the changing financial environment, and Maxwell said Wednesday that the size of his budget "may give some people great pause."
But in a written statement, the superintendent said: "I told [staff] that while we should not be extravagant in our request, we should not be shy in stating what we need."
The school system will hold public hearings on the budget on Tuesday and Thursday night, and the spending plan is scheduled for a final vote on Feb. 21. Leopold can then cut the board's budget before appending it to his own spending proposal, which he will present to the County Council for approval in May.
2008 budget proposal