Hunt for budget fat

Two school board members prepare alternative proposals

February 04, 2007|By Ruma Kumar | Ruma Kumar,[Sun Reporter]

Two fiscal conservatives on the Board of Education who say the county schools budget needs to go on a diet are facing an uphill battle in their hunt for the fat.

Michael G. Leahy and Victor E. Bernson Jr. are cobbling together alternative spending proposals that they say could save the system millions, even as their colleagues on the board vow not to trim a $131 million budget increase until County Executive John R. Leopold tells them what the county can afford.

"It would be irresponsible of us as a board not to have alternative plans and make the county executive and County Council be the bad guys," Leahy said. "There's this mind-set that if I don't have the same opinion as the superintendent, that I'm evil. I assure you I care just as much about the children. I just have a different idea about how to get from Point A to Point B."

Superintendent Kevin M. Maxwell has said that his responsibility is to state the needs of the school system. Maxwell is backed by a majority of the school board, including Vice Chairman Eugene Peterson, who called the 17 percent budget increase "a repair budget."

"We're filling potholes," he said, echoing comments made by teachers union President Tim Menutti. "From 2002 to now, we've been robbing Peter to pay Paul. We've underfunded the district for far too long, and the superintendent is trying to make us whole again."

The board is expected to pass the budget Feb. 21 and send it to the County Council for approval. Leopold, who is planning to talk with district officials this month about his bottom-line figure for the school system, will approve a county budget by May 31.

Leahy and Bernson are on a lonely mission. Though they're working separately, both say they haven't gotten straight answers on job descriptions for more than 670 new employees that Maxwell wants to hire. The job descriptions are important, both board members said, because it would help show how many of the new positions would duplicate work.

Bernson wants the district to consider contracting with a private company to put more school security officers and custodians in schools, rather than hiring its own. Going private, Bernson said, would save the district millions on health care and benefits. The superintendent's budget proposes spending $2.5 million on 38 school security officers and $910,000 on 26 custodians.

"Why are we not even contemplating taking a look at cost-saving contracts?" Bernson said. "Why do we go right to unionized employees with gigantic salaries and benefit packages?"

Meanwhile, Leahy says he sees a blur of new "specialists," "technicians" and "assistants" with vague responsibilities being requested by a variety of departments. When he asked for more information about what these new staffers would do, Leahy said, he was given the runaround and told to call different departments for answers.

"It would be disingenuous, if I didn't say I was troubled to see that they didn't have this information already available," Leahy said, sitting in his law office in Annapolis. "You have to know what these people do. It's as if [the district] thinks everything [it] does is perfect, and it should just go on adding every year."

Leahy wants to explore cutting the request for 288 new teachers by a third, by moving teachers who are doing administrative or training jobs into the classrooms. He also suggests saving $1 million by trimming the number of behavior specialists, psychologists, social workers and pupil personnel workers the school system wants to hire to reduce truancy, behavior problems and dropout rates.

"It's very important work, but I don't know if building this system of social work is the school district's responsibility," Leahy said.

Leahy has found several salaried positions, with benefits, that could be eliminated, if the district relies on nonprofit groups and parent volunteers who would do many of the jobs for free. He also said he wants to revisit whether the school district ought to spend more than $2 million to replace grant money that ran dry.

"We have to see how well these programs work before we fund them," Leahy said.

ruma.kumar@baltsun.com

Leahy's ideas

School board member Michael G. Leahy's most drastic ideas for saving money in the superintendent's budget include cutting a third of proposed new teaching positions and the number of school social workers.

He also suggests replacing the following salaried positions by getting free help from volunteers and nonprofits:

$1.1 million - Assistants who help shelve books in school libraries

$175,000 - Lunchroom and recess monitors

$137,472 - Student advocates

$54,816 - Specialist who develops pool of interpreters to work with immigrant students

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