School funding in question

Officials brace for cuts as some opt not to attend budget address

April 29, 2007|By Phillip McGowan and Ruma Kumar | Phillip McGowan and Ruma Kumar,Sun reporters

Anne Arundel schools Superintendent Kevin M. Maxwell will not attend County Executive John R. Leopold's budget address Tuesday morning and has scheduled his own announcement after it ends, a highly unusual move that suggests that school officials are bracing for bad news.

Amid fears over major cuts to the proposed $941 million school system budget, Leopold said his fiscal 2008 spending plan "reflects a tight-fisted management style to reduce wasteful government spending."

However, Leopold has pledged some funding for schools. Referring to a "crisis" in educator recruitment and retention, Leopold said last week that he will fund not only a negotiated 6 percent raise for teachers, but also an unanticipated 6 percent raise for principals.

Speaking broadly of the education budget, which historically represents half of the county's overall budget, Leopold said: "The public will be pleased."

He and other county officials declined to elaborate on most parts of the budget until his announcement, and school officials said they have gotten no indication of how much of a proposed $135 million spending increase will survive.

School board Vice President Eugene Peterson, who said he will not attend the budget address, said the absence of key school officials is the result of weeks of being rebuffed by the county executive and his staff.

Peterson said education leaders "received at least a ballpark" in previous years. "But we got nothing this year."

"I don't think there's been a lot of communication between Leopold and Maxwell," Peterson added. "I'm going to stand up for my superintendent here. [Maxwell] has made several attempts to sit with Leopold, and the message he got was: `Don't call us. We'll call you if we need you.'"

School board President Tricia Johnson said she has not decided whether she will attend.

Maxwell's budget staff is expected to attend the address, and then return to the school system headquarters to confer with Maxwell and hold a news conference.

Asked why Maxwell wasn't attending Leopold's address, school system spokesman Bob Mosier said, "Leopold didn't come to our budget presentation" in January. But Mosier said the superintendent's absence shouldn't be construed as adversarial.

"This is not Kevin Maxwell versus John Leopold," Mosier said.

Bob Leib, a former chief of staff for county schools who serves in Leopold's Cabinet, noted that some executives have briefed education leaders before the budget address while others have not. He discounted Peterson's remarks, noting that Leopold, a Republican, has an open-door policy for board members and others to voice their concerns.

Leopold called Peterson's remarks "clearly inaccurate," noting that he has had "several constructive meetings" with Maxwell and separately with school board members.

"I hope we can put this pettiness aside," said County Councilwoman Cathleen M. Vitale, a Severna Park Republican. "This is about doing the people's business."

The council must approve a budget by the end of May. The Republican-majority panel can subtract from but not add to Leopold's budget. Last year's budget was $1.37 billion.

"To hear that there's going to be a protest, silent or otherwise - they have counted out the role of the County Council," Vitale said of Maxwell and the board.

In the face of the uncertain fiscal climate, Maxwell pressed ahead with a 17 percent spending increase to offset what education officials said was historic underfunding. He said in his budget address in January that he believed that Anne Arundel's school system could be one of the best in the country.

In February the school board approved his package despite concerns of how the county, in part constrained by a property tax cap, could afford it. Members offered Leopold a funding priority list - but did not make a single cut before passing the spending plan. Leopold can make cuts to the school budget before adding it to his own.

School officials lobbied Leopold to max out the county's income tax rate, the third lowest in Maryland, to pay for Maxwell's requests. The superintendent's requests included money for at least 332 new teachers, administrators and support staff; security at all 12 high schools and 19 middle schools; all-day kindergarten at 17 elementary schools; and a reduction in teacher workloads.

Leopold has said he would not fully fund the education request, blaming numerous looming financial challenges. The county faces new expenses for 10 union contracts and rising health care costs for retired county employees; infrastructure improvements around Fort Meade; and a large maintenance backlog.

He said last week that his budget does not raise property or income taxes.

"We have different roles and different responsibilities," Leopold said. "I respect the board and the superintendent's role to articulate the needs of the school board. I would also hope they would show mutual respect for [my] broader responsibility to a broader constituency."

Since taking office in December, Leopold has imposed a hiring freeze on nearly 200 positions and has asked his department heads to cut spending by up to 10 percent - an amount that could exceed $50 million this year. Members of the council, particularly Republicans, supported those measures and encouraged Maxwell and the school board to take similar action.

Conservative members on the school board like Victor E. Bernson Jr. said Maxwell hasn't done much to build good will with Leopold, noting the superintendent's unwillingness to cut his budget. Bernson was one of two school board members, along with Michael G. Leahy, who voted against it, saying the schools budget was "unrealistic ... and raises false hopes."

Councilman Edward R. Reilly, a Crofton Republican, said he was confident "that Leopold will provide additional dollars for our schools, maybe not as generous as Dr. Maxwell would like."

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