School budget gets relief

Stimulus secures funding

salary talks continue

March 01, 2009|By John-John Williams IV

Some national news brought relief to school system officials and allowed them to limit cuts to the operating budget for the coming academic year.

On Tuesday, the Howard County school board approved a $663.9 million operating budget, which includes $4.9 million designated for salaries still to be determined while contract negotiations with the teachers union continue.

School officials said they were able to approve the record amount because the federal stimulus package signed into law two weeks ago will result in $10 million in additional funding for the county.

"The bottom line is we're in a better position," board Chairman Frank Aquino said.

Said Superintendent Sydney L. Cousin: "It is a welcome infusion."

In addition to unanimously approving the operating budget, the eight-member board approved a $95 million capital budget.

Both budgets now go to County Executive Ken Ulman, who can make cuts. For final approval, the spending plans then go to the County Council, which can restore money removed by Ulman if it finds a way to pay for it.

The school system and the Howard County Education Association, which represents the majority of school employees, are amid salary talks for the final year of the current three-year contract that expires in summer 2010. Salary increases would be applied to the third year of the current contract, which begins in July.

Employees in the school system have received a 5 percent cost-of-living increase each of the past two years.

The $4.9 million estimate that was included in last week's operating budget would equate to a 1 percent increase for all employees. If the school system and union agree to a salary increase that exceeds that amount, then the school board would have to craft an amended budget.

Ann DeLacy, president of the HCEA, declined to discuss details of salary negotiations. The union suspended talks earlier this year pending the completion of the stimulus package. The school system and the union are setting up a schedule to resume negotiations, both groups have said.

Although school employees in the county received the cost-of-living increase, some more veteran teachers have not received additional step increases during that time. Union leaders have said they believe raises are in order.

Board members said they were pleased with how the budgets turned out, particularly considering the recession.

"I did not expect that we would be able to hold the line as much as we have," Patricia Gordon said.

Larry Cohen said: "We're in very difficult times. In an ideal world, we would have liked to add things. The bottom line is, it's never enough."

Janet Siddiqui and Allen Dyer made unsuccessful motions to add a $115,000 pupil personnel employee to the budget. The employee would address the school system's growing homeless student population, Siddiqui said.

Dyer proposed that the board take money from funds to transport parochial school students to school to pay for the position. He could not get a board member to second his motion.

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