Gov. Martin O'Malley and top lawmakers warned the state's two dozen schools superintendents Tuesday to start pinching pennies as Maryland grapples with an expected $2 billion revenue shortfall next year.
"Virtually every other aspect of state government has been cut," O'Malley, a Democrat, said in an interview after his talk at the superintendents' meeting in Annapolis. "I said, 'Look, please take advantage of this next year to figure out more ways to save, better ways to bring down your costs and keep dollars in the classroom."
About 40 percent of the state's $13 billion operating budget goes to primary and secondary education, O'Malley said. The governor encouraged the superintendents to cut costs by buying state prisoner-made furniture and using prefabricated building designs. He also urged them to increase their purchasing power by buying textbooks and janitorial services in bulk, instead of county by county.
Schools avoided painful belt-tightening in February when President Barack Obama signed a spending bill that officials said at the time would give education an extra $720 million through the state and $400 million directly from Washington over two years.
But the poor economy continues to dampen revenue expectations. O'Malley's warnings Tuesday were echoed in pep talks later in the day by Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller and House Speaker Michael E. Busch, both Democrats.
Afterward, superintendents said they had expected such warnings.
The O'Malley administration is working on a budget that it will present to lawmakers in January and has not released details on how schools might be affected.
"We all understand this is a very difficult financial climate," said Dr. Andr?s Alonso, head of Baltimore public schools. He said the superintendents plan to "stand together" as they make their budget requests for next year.
Kevin M. Maxwell, head of Anne Arundel County schools, said education officials "understand how bad the situation is ... 'challenging' is a mild description."
But Maxwell said schools already are scrimping. His district didn't give cost of living or "step" increases to employees, and it furloughed teachers and other staff this year. He and other administrators took five days off without pay, teachers gave up three days, and secretaries and maintenance workers were furloughed for two.
O'Malley said he doesn't believe superintendents have endured the hardships of other state workers, who have had two rounds of furloughs in the past two years.
"I'm not sure that any of them has taken a 10-day furlough as I have as head of this corporation," O'Malley said, "and I think they all make a lot more."