School board resists trims

Leopold asks cut in $131 million rise

educators plead need

January 31, 2007|By Ruma Kumar and Phillip McGowan | Ruma Kumar and Phillip McGowan,Sun Reporters

Anne Arundel county school board members said they won't be bullied into cutting a $131 million budget increase they're seeking, despite County Executive John R. Leopold's directive that the district trim administrative fat.

Saying that central office administration accounted for only 3 percent of last year's $789 million budget, some school board members said yesterday that cuts would likely hit programs needed to help schools meet federal and state benchmarks.

Leopold, who called for a leaner budget last week at a Greater Crofton Chamber of Commerce meeting, said yesterday that the county cannot afford a 17 percent increase in education funding amid "a looming fiscal tsumani."

County officials have said that rising costs of retiree health care, negotiations on 10 labor contracts and infrastructure improvements in western Anne Arundel could add $200 million annually to the county's operating budget, which grew to $1.1 billion this year.

School officials are clinging to hopes that Leopold and the County Council will consider raising the local income tax to generate $80 million for the cash-strapped school system and county government. They predict that shrinking the budget would harm key student programs.

"I could make cuts, but they'd be painful," said school board Vice Chairman Eugene Peterson.

They could mean asking for fewer teachers for students with disabilities, fewer teachers for foreign-language speaking students and fewer school custodians, Peterson said. The district could also hire fewer social workers to work with at-risk students, a request that school officials say will damage work to reduce truancy.

"We gotta stop having these champagne tastes on a beer budget," Peterson said. "At those public budget hearings, all we kept hearing from parents is `gimme, gimme, gimme,' but no one is willing to ante up. You can't have gimme without the ante."

Victor Bernson, a fiscal conservative recently appointed to the school board by former Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., sided with Leopold. He said it's "appalling" that Superintendent Kevin M. Maxwell's budget proposal includes funding for more than 670 new staff positions. Though some of them are necessary because of state mandated expansion of the full-day kindergarten program, many are not, he said.

"It's like we can never spend enough," Bernson said. "And as I go through this document and look for corresponding cuts and savings, I'm hard-pressed to find them. It's a gargantuan, unrealistic request and I'm really frustrated by this continued talk ... that all we need to do is raise taxes and everything will be happy, happy, joy, joy."

Maxwell could not be reached for comment yesterday.

School board member Konrad Wayson said he doesn't want to trim the budget until Leopold gives a bottom-line figure for what the county can afford. To do otherwise, he said, would endanger a school system that's trying to keep 38 schools from failing federal and state standards for reading and math performance, attendance and graduation.

"I would say to Mr. Leopold, `Tell us what you got,' and we'll come up with cuts, if necessary," Wayson said. "But we're not going to come up with cuts now. It's our job to educate every child, and right now we don't have the resources to educate every child adequately. It's our job to tell [the County Council] what we need to make this good school system great."

Leopold said he's in the process of sitting down separately with the superintendent, the school board, the County Council and others to reach a budget target number.

"Seventeen percent is not affordable," Leopold said, referring to the funding increase the school system is seeking. "I've made it very clear that I do not support tax increases."

County Council Chairman Ronald C. Dillon Jr., a Pasadena Republican, said of Leopold: "I think he will do all he can [to not increase taxes]. All the council members are very anxious to see what he will propose in May."

County Councilman G. James "Jamie" Benoit, a Piney Orchard Democrat, said that the cost of education is rising, but that it's in the county's interest to keep up with those costs and improve performance.

"The county's first priority is to the kids we educate," Benoit said. "If it has to come at the expense of other programs, so be it."

The county executive discounted the argument made by school officials that the ratio of administrators to students in Anne Arundel already ranks among the lowest in Maryland: "There may be inefficiencies throughout the region," Leopold said.

Having already saved $1.5 million through a restructuring of his administration, Leopold said that the school system should also pursue administrative savings. He said that money could be poured back more directly into the classroom, such as for promoting parental involvement and intense intervention for at-risk students.

"I have said to Dr. Maxwell that I have tried to set an example of fiscal austerity," Leopold said. "My hope is that all levels of government, including the school system, emulate that example."

ruma.kumar@baltsun.com phillip.mcgowan@baltsun.com

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