School board finds little new money to fight over

Members expect a subdued budget meeting with most spending locked in

January 27, 2008|By Ruma Kumar | Ruma Kumar,SUN REPORTER

Last spring, board members needed a color-coded list of 88 items, arranged in order of importance, to help them see what parts of Superintendent Kevin M. Maxwell's budget proposal should stay put or be cut. They ardently debated what was most pressing: pupil personnel workers who help curb truancy or registrars who help manage high school testing?

School board members preparing to hold a workshop Tuesday on this year's budget say they're faced with a different dilemma this time around.

They'll have to be quiet.

"It's going to be a simple budget process for us," board Vice President Enrique Melendez said. "I mean, we've still got challenges and we're asking for more money, but we also know the reality that there's not a lot of new money out there."

There are no color-coded priority lists this year because there are barely a dozen new items to argue about.

The Anne Arundel County school system is seeking a nearly $100 million increase in its operating budget. Maxwell revealed last month his recommended $969 million operating budget and discussed the $189 million capital budget for school construction, maintenance and improvements, which the board approved in September.

Maxwell is suggesting about $13.4 million in additional spending to beef up things such as special education and magnet schools -- far from the $70 million in new staffing and programs he proposed last year. And most, about $72 million, of the $100 million increase the district is seeking is tied to promised salary increases for teachers, administrators and support staff.

Even fiscal conservative Victor E. Bernson, who has challenged the budget in previous years, resigned himself to the reality.

"We'll probably forward [Maxwell's] budget to the county executive intact, with no real changes," he said. "About 75 percent of it is locked in. There's not exactly a lot of room for any kind of intensive maneuvering."

Under such constraints, board members are unlikely to bow to the emotional pleas they heard last week at a public hearing seeking additional funding to reinstate full-time guidance counselors, hire more school secretaries and support a drug rehabilitation and counseling program for students.

Students in the academic middle who benefited from the AVID program, which helped them prepare for advanced courses, also lobbied the board to continue its expansion into elementary schools. Maxwell's proposal stalls the expansion to save money.

The boardroom at the district's headquarters in Annapolis was packed Tuesday, with more than 150 parents and school staff filling every seat, lining the back walls and sitting on tabletops and floors hoping to influence board members.

High school students testified through tears of how Safe and Drug-Free Schools counselors helped them get sober when no one else could. They talked of how the intervention helped them turn around failing grades and think about college.

The federal grant for the program is in jeopardy this year, they said, and urged the board not to allow the initiative to falter because of money.

The board also heard from students such as Clara Comstock, who said the "natural frustrations" of being a third-grader at Benfield Elementary had taken a toll on her. She had learned how to deal with her stress in group sessions with guidance counselor Teresa Wismer. But then, last year, Wismer's position turned to part-time because of budget cuts and forced her to split her time with Jones Elementary.

"I wish I could schedule my frustration to fit with Ms. Wismer's visits to Benfield Elementary ... but in the real world, that just isn't how it happens for me or the other students that need her help," said Clara, now a fifth-grader.

Twelve of the 78 elementary schools in the district have part-time counselors. Wismer was among five who were reduced to part time last year after a grant that funded them ran out.

Wismer told board members that Severna Park-area schools such as Benfield need full-time counselors because she sees a lot of students struggling with early signs of depression and buckling under the anxiety that they're not performing well enough.

Maxwell tried to add 19 guidance counselors and registrars last year, but not this year.

"It was moving testimony but almost all of the talk was about social work. I'm focused on academic achievement," Bernson said. "There are other agencies out there, both public and private, to deal with that stuff. We're trying to help prepare our students to become well-informed citizens and productive members of society through academic achievement."

ruma.kumar@baltsun.com

The school board will hold the budget workshop to discuss the budget from 6 p.m.to 8 p.m. Tuesday in the boardroom at district headquarters, 2644 Riva Road in Annapolis.

KEY DATES

Here are key dates involving the Anne Arundel County school district's budget:

Jan. 29: School board holds workshop to discuss, 6 p.m.-8 p.m., spending priorities and meets with top school district officials to discuss details of Superintendent Kevin M. Maxwell's $969 million operating budget. Public can attend, but can't make comments. (Jan. 31 is an alternative date, if more discussion is necessary.)

Feb. 20: School board approves budget.

March 1: Approved operating and capital budgets forwarded to the County Executive John R. Leopold.

May 1: Leopold presents his budget, which includes his recommendations for school funding.

Mid-May: County Council holds public hearings on budget.

June 1: County Council's deadline to approve budget.

June 2-17: School board revises budget to meet the County Council's funding allocation.

June 18: School board approves final, revised budget.

July 1: Budgets go into effect.

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