School board OKs $1.17 billion budget plan

February 28, 2007|By Gina Davis | Gina Davis,Sun reporter

With a deadline looming tomorrow, Baltimore County school board members approved a $1.17 billion spending plan last night, omitting a $20 million request that would have been used to raise wages for the system's lowest-paid workers - a sticking point that had stymied the usually routine budget process.

On an 8-3 vote, board members turned down a proposal to raise the system's minimum hourly wage to $10 because of concerns that the move would come at too steep a price.

The proposed wage increase fueled disagreement last week that kept the board from reaching a majority to approve the budget. Some members said it would be fiscally irresponsible to seek funding for such a large increase, while other members said it was critical to push for higher pay for employees such as personal assistants, bus attendants and custodians.

"It saddens me that they didn't think outside the box," said Lora Williams, president of Local 434 of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, whose members include the system's custodians and bus attendants. "I think they just saw the money and that was it. Year after year, they tell us, `Next year,' and it doesn't happen."

Before the board voted, a majority of the members had made it clear what their decision would be.

"My appointment on this board was to be able to make the hard decisions that are going to provide the best education for the students of Baltimore County," said member H. Edward Parker, who supported the wage increase in last week's vote but said last night that it would be irresponsible to approve an increase that likely would be cut later in the process.

The board's approved budget is about $114 million - or nearly 11 percent - more than the system's spending plan for the current fiscal year.

Board members must send the request by tomorrow to County Executive James T. Smith Jr., who will include school funding in his budget recommendation that is expected to be presented to the County Council in April. Council members are scheduled to approve a budget in May.

Superintendent Joe A. Hairston's original proposed budget of $1.16 billion, which was presented to board members last month, included enough money to support an increase that would raise the minimum wage from $8.40 to $9.20 for personal assistants, paid helpers and kindergarten classroom assistants.

Hairston's proposed spending plan for the fiscal year that begins July 1 reflects a 10.4 percent increase - about $110 million - over the current budget.

When board members met last week, they weighed two revised versions of Hairston's proposed operating budget: a $1.19 billion plan that included $20 million to raise the minimum hourly wage; and a plan that didn't.

Williams said starting pay for custodians is $9.37 an hour and $8.66 an hour for bus attendants, who assist children with special needs, disabilities or behavioral problems. Statewide, the average starting hourly wage for school custodians ranges from $10.82 to $14, and bus attendants average starting pay is $11.77, she said.

AFSCME represents about 900 custodians and 150 bus attendants who work in Baltimore County schools, she said.

The board's approved spending package also includes:

About $2.7 million to hire an assistant for every kindergarten classroom.

Nearly $40 million for salary increases and about $16 million to cover retiree benefits.

About $2 million for the final phase of the expansion of all-day kindergarten. Nine elementary schools - Rodgers Forge, Fifth District, Prettyboy, Fort Garrison, Timonium, Riderwood, Sparks, Jacksonville and Carroll Manor - are the last of the county's 104 elementaries to get all-day kindergarten, which the state is requiring for all schools by the fall.

About $814,000 in start-up costs, including hiring a principal and front-office secretary, for Vincent Farm Elementary, which is expected to open in the White Marsh area in time for the 2008-2009 school year.

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