Anne Arundel residents lobby County Council for school budget funding

Students among those who offer testimony

May 12, 2011|By Joe Burris, The Baltimore Sun

Rolling Knolls Elementary School third-grader Luke Mueller asked the Anne Arundel County Council to keep his aging, overcrowded school in mind when deciding on funding next year's school budget.

"A new school would make everything better," Luke said of the Annapolis school. "We wouldn't have to come in from the trailers to go to the bathroom. We could even have a real playground with swings. And our parents could stop parking in the parking lanes because of how small our parking lot is."

Luke was among dozens of county residents of all ages and backgrounds who spoke up for their schools, their local libraries and their education programs during public hearings on the county budget on Monday at Old Mill High School in Millersville and Wednesday at the Arundel Center in Annapolis.

Most of the testimony was uncontentious, but speakers underscored the arduous task that the board will have in deciding which items to fully fund, partially fund or cut.

Testimony by schoolchildren was among the most memorable. Arundel High School ninth-grader Christian Hodges told the council that he uses textbooks to hold up his desk and that others at the school shove folded paper beneath desk legs to keep them from wobbling. In conversations he has had with students from other schools, Christian told the council, he heard that one county high school "uses shower curtains for doors."

The County Council must approve its version of the budget by June 1, and then the county Board of Education must approve a final budget by June 30. Overall, the county is proposing to give the school system $556.1 million for next year; last year it approved $562.4 million.

Among those giving testimony who received the loudest applause was Superintendent Kevin Maxwell, who on Wednesday night addressed the council about the Board of Education's budget.

"I realize this council has difficult choices to make. We, too, have had to make those difficult choices," Maxwell said. "Realizing that money is tight, we have not done everything over the last few years that we have desired. We have made many cuts, some of them very painful.

"We have not added any general fund positions to our system in the last two years, despite receiving about 2,000 more students. And we do not propose to add any teaching positions next year, despite projections for another 1,000 students."

At Monday night's session, some members of the Teachers Association of Anne Arundel County stood in front of Old Mill High School with placards that read "Save Our Schools."

The teachers group president, Bill Jones, said the union wants the County Council to support the 3-cent property tax increase recently proposed by County Executive John R. Leopold.

"The last thing we want them to do is fail to support the 3-cent property tax increase," said Jones. "If they fail to do that, it will cost the county about another $20 million, about $10 million of which would fall to the school system because we get about 50 percent of county money."

Jones, Maxwell and others also focused on a topic that has dominated this year's budget discussions: maintenance of effort, a state mandate requiring that counties spend the same amount of money per pupil for the next school term as it did the previous term.

This week, the Board of Education asked the state to dismiss Leopold's request, formally made in March, to exempt the county from maintenance of effort. Though Leopold says he has withdrawn the request, the Maryland State Department of Education said Monday that though the county contacted the office stating its intentions to withdraw the request, it had yet to do so.

Leopold has argued that his proposed budget meets maintenance of effort with the inclusion of a debt service line item. Jones called the inclusion "sleight of hand," and added, "We're not even getting what we got last year to run a system with more students in it."

Those sentiments were echoed by Susan Errichiello, president of the county's Association of Educational Leaders and principal of Belvedere Elementary School.

"My biggest concern is the maintenance-of-effort situation we have found ourselves in," she said. "I am asking you as a council of very intelligent human beings to spend some time really looking at that. We are given more mandates every day and expect to fulfill those mandates with less and less resources."

County Council Chairman Richard Ladd commended what he termed "excellent input from a wide range of very concerned people. The concern for the health of the schools and maintaining or sustaining the momentum that the schools have clearly achieved for the last five to 10 years is powerful."

Ladd said he understands that the school system "would like to continue that momentum," but given the county's current financial constraints, "that's a little tough."

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