Arundel superintendent wants more money for schools

He criticizes level of funding in county executive's budget proposal

May 08, 2010|By Nicole Fuller, The Baltimore Sun

Class sizes would increase. Students wouldn't get new textbooks. And several planned school construction projects would come to a halt.

Superintendent Kevin M. Maxwell and some school board members made those predictions last week after County Executive John R. Leopold presented his budget proposal, increasing funding to the school system by $8.3 million over the last fiscal year — the minimum required by law.

"More crowded classrooms, no additional teachers, increasing enrollments — kids are certainly going to feel that," said Maxwell, who said he had "significant concerns" about Leopold's proposal.

Maxwell plans to appear Tuesday afternoon before the County Council, which has final authority over the budget, where he'll make his case for more funding as the county faces sharp revenue downturns as a result of the recession.

Among Maxwell's complaints: The proposal contains no funding for textbooks for the next six years, fails to fully fund union pay agreements and doesn't fund several school construction projects that were already in the pipeline.

Tasked with closing a $95 million budget shortfall for the fiscal year 2011 budget, Leopold has proposed 12 furlough days for most county employees and cuts in spending in most departments. Leopold funded the board's capital budget with $114 million — about $63 million less than the board requested.

In remarks during his budget address, Leopold highlighted his commitment to "investment … in our educational facilities."

His plan budgets $10 million for expansion of elementary schools to accommodate all-day kindergarten and pre-K programs and $8 million to eliminate open-space classrooms. He also recommends funding to complete renovation projects at several schools: Overlook, Pershing Hill, Belle Grove, Folger McKinsey and Germantown elementaries and Northeast High. He also budgeted $740,000 for a feasibility study to examine a renovation project at Severna Park High.

But several other construction projects received no funding — including Point Pleasant Elementary — a project that school officials said makes little sense, practically and economically, to delay.

Already, school officials have completed a feasibility study and were anticipating beginning construction this summer. Now, without funding for Point Pleasant, the project is on hold.

School officials also said that Leopold failed to follow the priority order of construction projects.

"He radically rearranged our priorities," said Eugene Peterson, a school board member. "If I had to give him a grade, it would be a D-minus for actual, real budgeting. It's the most cynical budget document I've seen in an election year. Shame on the county executive. But I'd give him an A for bait-and-switch, creative budgeting — $14 million for wages, salaries and instruction that he knows we're going to have to use for books."

John R. Hammond, the county's budget officer, said, "We're doing the best we can. We have funded the board of education according to the laws of Maryland. The school board needs to figure out what their priorities are."

School officials said they have taken preventive measures in the last few years to deal with the repercussions of the economic downturn — furloughs last year, a three-year hiring freeze and the elimination of 200 vacant positions, among other things.

"We certainly understand [the economic situation] and we tried to be very reasonable in our requests," Maxwell said.

But Leopold officials criticized Maxwell for accepting a hefty raise — the board gave him a $24,000 raise when it unanimously extended his contract this year — during tight budget times.

By comparison, officials noted that Leopold said he will repay the automatic $5,000 raise he receives this year and give back about 5 percent of his salary to the county in solidarity with county workers, all of whom face similar pay cuts.

"It's interesting that [Maxwell] has so much to say about what's not in the budget when he got a $24,000 raise," said Hammond. "I'm sure that we gave enough money to fund Dr. Maxwell's pay increase. I'm sure that in the $8.3 million maintenance of effort, there's $24,000 for him."

Bob Mosier, a spokesman for Maxwell, declined to respond to Hammond's comments. Before this year, Maxwell last received a pay increase in 2007.

One of the most troubling issues in the budget to school officials, they said, is the lack of funding for textbooks. In addition to the need for more textbooks because of rising enrollments, many classes use workbooks that are purchased on a yearly basis. Typically, the school system spends about $6 million annually on the books.

"How you run a school system without textbooks is beyond me," said Maxwell.

Cathleen M. Vitale, a member of the County Council, said she has not yet examined in detail the school budget proposal, but looks forward to hearing from school officials.

"This council has always supported education," Vitale said.

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