School officials push to preserve pay raises

Council scans auditor's suggested budget cuts

May 18, 2007|By Gina Davis | Gina Davis,sun reporter

As the Baltimore County Council winds down its budget review process, school officials yesterday lobbied to hold onto more than $5 million marked for possible cuts that could affect some employees' salaries.

County schools Superintendent Joe A. Hairston told council members that the $1.38 billion proposed budget for the coming fiscal year, which starts July 1, should not be cut, and he said that teacher pay raises are necessary to help the school system continue to attract and retain the best educators possible.

"We have to remain competitive," Hairston told council members during an afternoon work session, noting that the county schools must compete for teachers with large, nearby school systems in Baltimore City and Montgomery and Prince George's counties, along with Fairfax County in Northern Virginia.

During yesterday's work session, school officials and council members referred to a 28-page packet drawn up by the county's auditor that listed "recommended budget reductions," which are items that council members would likely consider trimming as they settle on a final figure to fund. The council is expected to make its decision on all of its budgets by May 24.

An average raise for teachers would remain intact under the recommendations. But the auditor suggests reducing the raise for some other unionized school system employees, including custodians.

The recommended cuts also include $2 million in other salary-related expenditures and about $400,000 for insurance costs. The county's auditor also recommended cutting funding for Social Security expenses by $670,000 because an analysis showed that the item had been overbudgeted in recent years.

In reviewing the budget during yesterday's work session, council members also asked about an expansion of the magnet school program and plans for a new alternative school, though those items were not specifically named as possible cuts.

Council members also noted that while the salary for starting teachers has increased about 43 percent to about $42,000 since 2000, no evidence has been given that the pay increases have led to improved academic performance among the county's students.

Councilman John Olszewski Sr. of Dundalk asked whether school officials are working on ways to ensure that teachers are doing their jobs effectively and are considering awarding teachers bonuses instead of across-the-board increases. Cheryl Bost, the teachers union president, said a merit-pay system isn't the answer.

"It creates a negative competitive effect," she said. "There are a lot of factors to look at."

For instance, she said, she spent years teaching in a school that had a high rate of low-income children. She said their scores on statewide tests may not have been as high as other schools, but that didn't mean she had not worked as hard or harder than teachers at higher-performing schools.

The proposed budget includes about $28 million to provide a 4 percent cost-of-living adjustment for all employees. A suggested cut of $1.9 million would maintain that increase for teachers but reduce to 3 percent the increase given to employees of the system's four other unions, including hundreds of workers such as custodians who are represented by the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees.

This month, some educators and community advocates questioned Baltimore County Executive James T. Smith's decision to propose a school budget that included millions of dollars for expenses that school officials had not requested, but cut funding for textbooks, more kindergarten aides and an infusion of funds to help low-income middle school students.

Yesterday, Hairston said that while any superintendent would prefer for the school system's budget to be adopted as is, he supports Smith's recommended budget.

And after the work session, Hairston stressed that he does not expect that the County Council will cut anything that would inhibit the school system's ability to do its job effectively.

"This is a process. We're just here to make sure they clearly understand our rationale for what we're seeking," he said. "They have to scrutinize everyone's budget, and they have to have an understanding of our priorities. This is the best [proposed] budget I've had in years."

Even if the recommendations for cuts by the county's auditor are followed, the spending plan would still include a 5 percent increase over the current fiscal year budget.

"The bottom line is we'd still be getting more money to work with," Hairston said.

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