Dyer, rest of Howard school board at odds over budget

Vote on transportation for parochial school students leads to argument

February 28, 2010|By John-John Williams IV | john-john.williams@baltsun.com

Board members Allen Dyer and Larry Cohen stood off to the side, involved in a lengthy, heated discussion just minutes after the Howard County school board voted 6-1 Tuesday morning to approve a $675.1 million operating budget for fiscal year 2011.

The lone vote of dissent came from Dyer, who opposed the board spending money to provide transportation to parochial school students. During the board's discussion, Dyer said that he was displeased with the board's "lack of direction."

The words riled fellow board members, including Cohen, who was now raising his voice.

"I want to talk about this in private," Cohen was heard saying.

"You're arrogant," Cohen said a few minutes later.

"No board member is correct all the time," Dyer was heard saying before the two ended their heated discussion.

Neither member would divulge exactly what was said during the exchange.

"That is between me and Allen," Cohen said from his home Thursday afternoon. "I am not going to comment on that. The conversation was private. Anything you heard would be taken out of context. I have to leave it alone."

Cohen and other board members immediately expressed opposition during the meeting when Dyer said that he did not support the school system's funding transportation for parochial school students. Instead, Dyer wanted the board to spend $537,000 to offer foreign language at all elementary schools systemwide.

"I think that as a board member I am against transportation to nonpublic schools being part of our budget," Dyer said after the meeting.

Dyer has questioned the transportation of parochial school students in the past. He sought an opinion from state officials, but the Maryland State Department of Education ruled last year that he did not have any standing to do so. He has appealed that decision to Circuit Court, where it is under review.

Board Chairwoman Ellen Flynn Giles, along with several other board members, objected to Dyer's plan.

"These are not the types of things that you discuss when you approve the budget," Giles said. Dyer's proposal "was not supported with a plan for how those funds would be used."

Board member Sandra French appeared to support the concept of foreign language at the elementary-school level. But she stressed that board members would have to follow a process in order to implement such a program.

"I respect your request about foreign language, but we haven't had any real discussion about that," French said during a discussion leading to the vote. "We just can't do it in a budget page. It has to be a long process. You have to get data. There is just so much planning you have to do. While I'm sympathetic to the goal, I don't think today is the right time to do the money switch."

Despite having his proposal opposed by the entire board, Dyer said he thinks a majority of the board supports the concept of offering foreign language in all elementary schools in the county.

The tension didn't end with the foreign-language proposal. Dyer further irked board members when he said that he was displeased with the board's "lack of direction."

"We failed in many ways to look at the priorities we have as a school system," Dyer said during the meeting. "Just because we don't have any increases in funds doesn't mean we should hold the line."

French immediately said that the board has 11 months in which to set goals and prioritize.

She reminded Dyer of the board's spring retreat, where members talk to top-ranking school officials about long-range master plans and goal setting.

"I am very satisfied with the process right now," she said.

After the vote, Dyer said he wanted the board to take more time during the budget cycle to prioritize projects to fund.

"I hope that the board does get more involved," Dyer said. "That does not mean to maintain the economic sources you have."

After the meeting was adjourned, Giles further defended the board's work.

"We were very serious about not stepping back. We wanted to provide for the needs of students," Giles said. "I'm not exactly sure what he wanted us to do."

While Giles was talking about the work of the board, Dyer and Cohen continued their discussion.

"In general Larry and I talk on a regular basis," Dyer said with a laugh a few minutes after the exchange Tuesday morning. "I look at him as a little bit of a mentor. I usually don't take his advice, which frustrates him."

The events during the vote do not indicate bad blood on the board, according to several board members.

"Allen certainly is entitled to his opinion as is everyone on the board," Cohen said. "I just don't happen to agree with that. I think we function really well as a board. We don't agree on everything. But I wouldn't expect with seven members on the board that we do."

Dyer said: "We have a good board even if they disagree with me."

The operating budget approved by the board Tuesday represents a $10.3 million increase from the budget proposal unveiled by Superintendent Sydney L. Cousin in January. The increase is due in large part to an increased pension rate, from 7.58 percent to 10.83 percent, and additional health fund contribution costs by the school system.

The approved budget does not include salaries negotiated between the school system and the unions representing teachers and support personnel. That process is continuing and is expected to take several more months, according to Sue Mascaro, the school system's director of staff relations.

The budget will now go to the county executive, who can make reductions before submitting a proposal to the County Council. The council, which can make further cuts or restore funding, has until late May to approve a budget that will take effect June 1.

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