Education cuts by Howard council would endanger state aid

Ulman's budget leaves school request untouched

  • County Executive Ken Ulman speaks at Turf Valley Resort.
County Executive Ken Ulman speaks at Turf Valley Resort. (KATHRYN WHITNEY, Baltimore…)
April 21, 2011|By Larry Carson, The Baltimore Sun

Howard County's schools represent the county's single largest expense, but the $1.56 billion budget proposed by County Executive Ken Ulman gives the County Council virtually no chance to either cut or add money to the school board's request for more than one-third of that money.

That's because Ulman proposed giving the board its full request of $512.6 million in locally raised revenue, which also represents just enough to satisfy the state law that requires counties to maintain per-student spending levels or risk a major loss of state funds.

The board's full request, including federal and state grants and other funds, totals $681.2 million. Of that, $467.6 million comes from local tax revenue for classroom expenses, while another $45 million goes for debt interest and future retiree benefits. The money will also pay for 43 new teachers to serve a growing enrollment.

"I'm very pleased that the county is supporting the school budget," school board Chairwoman Janet Siddiqui said.

School officials and the county's PTA council aren't complaining about the executive's proposal.

School system chief financial officer Ray Brown is hopeful that the council will keep the budget above the state funding requirement, but he remains cautious.

"That's good," Brown said, "but that's not necessarily a free ride," because there's always the chance that the council could cut the budget and risk the consequences.

"There will be some discussion" with the council members, he said. School board and teachers' union negotiators are still in talks over whether teachers would see a raise next fiscal year.

John Hannay, president of the PTA Council, said his group is also satisfied, given the economy. "I think they did what they can do," he said of the school board.

County Council Chairman Calvin Ball, an east Columbia Democrat, said that while he agrees that "education is a top priority," nobody will get a free pass.

"We will carefully review the budget and listen to the community," he said. The council has until June 1 to adopt a spending plan for the fiscal year that starts a month later. The council will hold a public hearing on most elements of the operating budget on Tuesday at 7:30 p.m. in the council chambers. A hearing on schools, community college and libraries is scheduled for 9 a.m. May 7.

Ulman's overall budget is 8.8 percent higher, but the total general fund budget — composed of money raised mainly through local taxes, fines and fees — is $870.8 million, a 5.6 percent increase. He credits cost-cutting in previous years for the slightly brighter picture in fiscal 2012.

"The reason we're able to be cautiously optimistic about the future is that we were able to clamp down on spending and hold positions vacant" in past years, Ulman said. He added that 68 vacant jobs will remain frozen, and the county is still benefiting from cooperation with the school board that has saved more than $17 million a year.

Most of the added spending would go to fixed costs the county doesn't control, like fuel and energy prices, health insurance and debt interest, pension costs and mandated state payments, officials said. Howard residents will have to pay 9 percent more for Baltimore City-supplied water and sewer services, and county hotel room taxes will increase from 5 percent to 7 percent to add funds for tourism and economic development programs.

With no employee cost-of-living pay raises and no proposed general tax increases, the council might have a hard time finding things to alter in what budget director Raymond S. Wacks called "a continuation of services budget with a few targeted increases." County police would get a 2 percent pay raise, but the money for that will come from funds already used to pay officers extra who work late shifts.

A slightly improved economy produced $26.5 million more money from income taxes, a larger surplus that allowed $3.5 million to go into a fund to help pay for future retirees health benefits and $10 million in cash for capital budget projects. Still overall property tax receipts are down slightly, because of falling home values.

The county intends to spend $1.2 million more to staff the new, much larger Miller branch library in Ellicott City due to open this year. Also opening during the year is a large new community center in North Laurel and the Robinson Nature Center in Columbia. Another $942,000 will go to boost housing programs, half of which would help middle-income families who can't afford closing costs.

County workers also won't face being furloughed without pay for the first time in three years."Certainly that's a welcome event to our members," said Dale Chase, president of AFSCME Local 3065, which represents about 250 relatively low-wage county workers. Chase said his members appreciate not seeing their share of health insurance premiums go up, too.

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