Superintendent has dire predictions for tight budget

School system got one-third of request

May 04, 2008|By Ruma Kumar | Ruma Kumar,Sun reporter

Class sizes will grow because fewer teachers will be hired to fill vacancies. Schools will be warmer in summer and cooler in winter to save on utility costs. Dozens of central office administrators will be laid off. And the system will turn to generous businesses or parent groups to pay for classroom supplies the district can no longer afford.

This is the dire scenario that schools Superintendent Kevin M. Maxwell paints of a school system trying to grapple with the $1.2 billion proposed budget unveiled by County Executive John R. Leopold last week. The budget, which recommends giving the school system $26 million of the $77.5 million increase it requested, leaves the district $51 million short and struggling to cover raises and benefits promised to teachers, administrators and support staff.

If he keeps those promises, Maxwell said, he expects to make severe cuts in administration and sharply scale back school maintenance. He foresees a loss of at least 100 central office positions, he said, involving possible layoffs and freezing vacant positions.

And as he had threatened earlier, Maxwell said he would leave 200 teaching positions unfilled, a move that would reduce costs by $12 million for the district. However, he warned that it would increase the workload and harm morale among school staff already leaving in higher rates than in the past.

If he chose to avoid those cuts and not honor the raises, Maxwell said, the district would likely face a credibility crisis with powerful public employee unions and an uphill battle to recruit and retain qualified workers "for years to come."

Leopold's budget provides money for 6 percent raises for teachers and 3 percent raises for support staff, but it does not cover 6 percent raises for administrators. The executive's budget also does not include enough money to cover the costs of health care, retirement and other benefits that were part of the negotiated agreements for thousands of workers.

Leopold "urged me to honor the contractual agreements, but he has not held up his agreement," Maxwell said. "I can't pick and choose what part [of the agreements] to fund. I have to provide health care. I have to provide retirement."

County budget director John Hammond said last week that the school district "asked for more money for health insurance than is needed" and that he hopes the district will dip into its $17 million health care reserve fund to cover the negotiated benefits costs.

But schools budget director Susan Bowen balked at that, saying that money is set aside to help the self-insured school system cover cost overruns in employee health care.

Leopold said he was not able to cover all the raises because a property-tax cap limits what the county can collect in new revenue. Instead, he proposed leveraging nearly $15 million in new revenue by levying hotel taxes and increases in fees for ambulance use, parks, building permits and other areas.

The schools' shortfall emerged as the most controversial piece of the county executive's largely static county budget proposal. School administrators lobbied County Council members for more funding at a hearing April 25, and a leader of the local teachers union pledged to launch an information picket that would get the county's 6,000 teachers to bombard County Council members and the school board with letters calling for "a more reasonable approach."

"With the tough choices facing the school board, the superintendent, the County Council, no one can predict what deals are going to be cut, or what people are going to ultimately agree to," said Tim Mennuti, president of the Teachers Association of Anne Arundel County.

School officials also said Leopold's budget doesn't provide enough money to staff a new Gambrills school, nor does it include money for the district's request for teachers, aides and therapists required to work with special needs students. In all, the district sought 118 positions; it was granted eight.

School officials were pleased that Leopold included a $2,000 stipend for nationally board-certified math and science teachers in the schools' Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) programs. But they pointed out that only nine teachers qualified for the narrowly defined stipend.

Similarly, the schools' facilities officials were happy to see $137 million in capital funds for improvements and new construction. But they said they were disappointed that Leopold's proposal left out money to remodel open-space schools, update six other aging schools and build additions for several elementaries to offer state-ordered kindergarten programs.

Leopold said school officials appear out of touch with the fiscal reality facing a county that has a shrinking revenue stream because of the real estate slump.

"I hear the superintendent say, `Oh, I think there's a will to increase the income tax' for education. I don't see that," Leopold said. "I have tried to set an example of discipline. In my office, we have cut positions and consolidated positions, so that we maximize efficiency. So, too, should the board of education."

Fiscal 2009 budget highlights

Operating budget:$1.22 billion

Capital budget: $214 million

9% increase in county spending (not including state or federal funds)

Board of Education : $570 million

Key increases:

$19 million for 6% raises for teachers

$5.8 million for five Police Department positions, including three new resource officers

$2 million work force housing initiative

Key savings

$3 million through continued hiring freeze

New revenue of $13.5 million:

Hotel tax rate increase from 7% to 10%: $6.3 million

$500 ambulance transport fee: $2 million

Other fee increases: $5.2 million

[Source: Office of the Budget, Anne Arundel County]

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