County schools could face cuts in services

Officials blame expected drop in state funding

December 19, 2007|By Gina Davis | Gina Davis,Sun Reporter

Funding shortfalls totaling millions of dollars could adversely affect the Baltimore County school system's ability to maintain some services, such as special-education programs, county school officials said last night.

An anticipated loss of state money because of declining enrollment is likely to wipe out the modest increase in state funding that the school system is expecting. Meanwhile, an infusion of about $3.2 million will be needed to replace decreasing special-education grant money.

The expected shortfalls were among the financial concerns that school system officials detailed during a discussion of spending issues for the fiscal year that starts July 1.

"The new dollars aren't going to be enormous dollars coming to us," county schools Superintendent Joe A. Hairston said. "We have a greater need to prioritize the issues."

Enrollment was down by nearly 1,500 students at the end of September, compared with the number of students in county schools last year at the same time. The enrollment dip could result in a loss of $5.1 million in projected state funding, school officials said. Enrollment is projected to drop by another 2,000 students during the next school year, they added.

School officials also pointed out that while state funding is expected to increase by 1 percent, or $4.6 million, that figure is substantially less than the increase of $23.4 million they had anticipated in the next fiscal year. State aid for the current fiscal year increased by $67.6 million, they said.

"There will be a tremendous reduction in growth in the budget," said Deputy Superintendent J. Robert Haines. "We won't lose any of the prior year's dollars."

Other budget issues that were outlined included:

About $6.4 million is needed to make up for decreasing Medicaid reimbursements for services that the system provides to certain special-education students. The system's third-party billing office recovered about $1 million less last year than the year before, according to school system records. In recent years, the money has been used to hire special-education teachers, psychologists, school social workers and health assistants.

Three county schools - Woodlawn High and Southwest Academy and Lansdowne middle schools - are expected to submit restructuring proposals in February. Under the federal No Child Left Behind Act, schools that fail to reach federal standards after five consecutive years enter the restructuring planning stage. Failing schools must develop a plan to replace most or all of the staff, reopen as a charter school, contract with a private entity or bring in a "distinguished principal" from another district.

"There are cost factors associated with that as we make the adjustments," Hairston said.

Additional teachers and staff are needed for the county's newest school, Crossroads Center, a school in the White Marsh area that opened this year for chronically disruptive students who are struggling to pass state standardized tests.

The system expects to open Vincent Farms Elementary in the White Marsh area next fall.

School officials want to expand Advancement Via Individual Determination, a national college-preparatory program, to middle schools and maintain the program at all of its high schools. The program is aimed at students "in the middle" who, educators say, are capable of more challenging work but need more resources, such as tutoring and training in organizational skills, to reach their potential. Many participants come from lower-income households or will be the first in their families to attend college.

School officials also said they are concerned about pressures that the county government faces to control its expenses. For instance, the county has steadily reduced the rate at which it spends on education above state-required funding levels, they said. The county exceeded the requirement by 7.9 percent in fiscal year 2001, but surpassed it by 2.4 percent for the current fiscal year.

gina.davis@baltsun.com

School budget timetable

January/February

Jan. 8 - Superintendent expected to present proposed operating budget for fiscal year 2009 to school board. The proposal also will be distributed to principals and PTA presidents.

Jan. 15 - School board plans to hold public hearing.

Jan. 23 - School board holds budget work session.

Feb. 13 - School board is expected to adopt a budget.

March/April

County executive reviews board-adopted proposed budget and may add or delete money before submitting it to the County Council.

April/May

County Council, which may only delete funds from proposed budget, holds public hearings on all county budgets and then adopts an operating budget for entire county.

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