Anne Arundel County Schools Superintendent Kevin M. Maxwell and the school board are grappling with how to bridge a $45 million budget deficit, after the County Council gave final approval last week to the county's $1.29 billion operating budget for the next fiscal year.
The county's combined $2.4 billion operating and capital budgets include no tax increases, layoffs or furloughs, and a slight decrease in the property tax rate, which would drop 1.2 cents to a rate of 87.6 cents per $100 of assessed value.
But the county's public schools, which will receive about $593 million in operating funding, are facing huge budget cuts and will likely be forced to issue furloughs.
"Now we have to go about the hard business of reconciling those two numbers," said Alex L. Szachnowicz, the school department's chief operating officer, moments after the council passed the budget Thursday. "We will do everything possible to avoid any layoffs." But Szachnowicz added that furloughs will be "front and center as part of the dialogue."
County Executive John R. Leopold had proposed a $1.17 billion operating budget, with across-the-board 9 percent departmental cuts. But the operating budget passed by the council increased Leopold's proposal by $12.3 million, which was largely subsidized by cuts to the capital budget and the use of bonds for construction projects. The council also added $16 million to a contingency fund for the county.
"We took a hard look and said, 'Not this year' " on about $42 million in capital projects, said Councilwoman Cathleen M. Vitale, a Republican from Severna Park. "People questioned a lot of what we spent this year. With people unemployed and out of work, they asked us to set a tone. And I think we set a tone."
The Board of Education operating budget received an additional $800,000 from the $592 million that was proposed, in order to fund a magnet program at Bates Middle School. Leopold also provided $250,000 to the Chesapeake Science Point Public Charter School for construction on a new facility.
The budget also funds construction of the Lighthouse Shelter in Annapolis, and operating funds for the Gems and Jewels; Science, Technology, Engineering and Math (STEM); Middle School Parenting; and Gerontology programs at Anne Arundel Community College.
The council added $3.8 million for a feasibility study to address the needs of Severna Park High School.
"This was a somber budget season where the struggling economy made us focus on core services," Leopold said in a statement. "This is not the time to increase the tax burden on our citizens because they will lead us into recovery by spending their money in the ways they see fit. County government has responded by reducing its spending and increasing efficiency. I am pleased that the council funded 99 percent of the budget I submitted."
Before casting their votes, several council members spoke of the tough choices made during budget discussions and predicted circumstances will worsen.
"Ultimately, I think we've fulfilled our obligation to the taxpayers," said County Councilman Ronald Dillon Jr., a Republican from Pasadena. "We've tried to protect them. This year was tough, and all indications are that the next year will be tough. Hopefully, the economy will turn so we don't have such a daunting task."
G. James Benoit, a Democrat from Crownsville, said, "I am very certain that the things we provide, we can't continue to provide them. Next year, we're going to be having this same discussion, probably in a much worse environment. Next year, the cries are going to be louder and we're going to be cutting muscle."