Arundel school board alleges payback in $5 million budget cut

The Anne Arundel County Council vote this week to trim $5 million from the school's capital budget has led school officials to allege that the cut was retaliation for a squabble last year.

On Wednesday, after the school board reviewed more than three dozen projects in jeopardy because of the cuts, Superintendent Kevin Maxwell said the board now has "the most contentious relationship we've had with the council."

"How we're going to work together going forward is as much a question as where we are now," Maxwell said.

County Executive Laura Neuman had previously trimmed the school system request for $9 million for maintenance projects and a roof replacement at Rippling Woods Elementary School to $6.1 million. Maxwell said the school system accepted those adjustments, but then the council further cut that amount to $1.1 million. During budget deliberations, county budget officer John Hammond opposed the move.

Last year, council members accused the school board of reneging on an agreement to help pick up a portion of teacher pension costs. Ultimately, state officials sided with the school board, and the county had to add $5 million to the school system budget.

Council members dismissed the notion of payback, but on Wednesday, school board member Deborah Ritchie said, "We can all sit here and say we don't know why they did it, but we know why they did it."

After the council proposed the cuts during a budget work session in late May, Maxwell issued a sharply worded statement that read, in part: "Every councilmanic district in our county is impacted, and the members of this council will need to explain to their constituents why they have chosen political theater over sorely needed projects."

On June 4, the council made the cuts formal as part of its overall budget vote.

In addition to the roof project, school officials said, other items in jeopardy include painting at nine schools, carpet and tile replacement at five schools, exterior door and frame replacements at four schools, upgrading the running tracks at Arundel and Meade high schools and repairing lights at North County High's stadium.

Strained relations between the school system and county government over money have been well-documented over the years, but much of the contention was between school officials and former County Executive John R. Leopold. After last year's row, school officials and council members held informal meetings that Ritchie said were designed to "create an atmosphere of trust and communication." On Wednesday, she said, "All that hard work, all that communication and deliberation, is chucked out the window for five stinking million dollars."

County Council members noted that the $5 million removed from the school budget was placed into a contingency fund and that the school system can still apply to use it. But on Wednesday, when school board Vice President Teresa Milio Birge was questioned whether those funds would be available, the school system's chief operating officer, Alex L. Szachnowicz, said they would not.

Szachnowicz said the council cuts came in the form of bond funding, and "bond and contingency accounts have nothing to do with one another."

But Councilman Jamie Benoit, a Democrat from Crownsville who sponsored the cuts, said that's not accurate.

"The money we put into the county contingency account was not bonds. It was called 'pay go,' which is cash," Benoit said. "I just hasten to add that some of the Board of Education's comments and reaction belie the fact that the [board] has an excess of $20 million in its own contingency account, and the idea that the $5 million transfer of money from certain board of education capital projects into the county's contingency account in any way affects the delivery of education or the improvement of schools is just complete hogwash."

Benoit said that the school system can still request the funds from the council via an appropriation or "pay for it out of their own reserves, because they have more than the $5 million we removed from the capital budget."

"The County Council took what I believe was a prudent fiscal action in making sure we had enough money in our own contingency funds to deal with unforeseen emergencies as they arise," Benoit said.

"The school system is trying to make this seem as if it's some political payback, and it is not," he said. "We're just trying to build our own contingency account."

School board member Kevin Jackson said that while the situation is unfortunate, both sides need to mend fences. He noted that through various cuts, the school system's initial capital budget request of $240 million had been trimmed to $137 million.

"I hope that everybody can put down their weapons," Jackson said. "Our capital budget is now $137 million. How are we going to work with that this year, and then next year start a new year, a new slate, a new white piece of paper with a new black pen, and do what's right — the county executive and the County Council and the board of education — for our children?"

Baltimore Sun reporter Pamela Wood contributed to this article.

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