Baltimore County Executive Kevin Kamenetz released a budget proposal Tuesday that he says is part of a long-term plan to eliminate school overcrowding, resulting in a surplus of classroom seats by 2021.
The county could face a shortage of 1,400 seats by then without aggressive funding, said Kamenetz, whose proposal was the final budget address of his current term.
"If there is a shortage of seats, that means more trailers and larger class sizes," the county executive said at a news briefing before the budget unveiling.
Kamenetz says the county could have 5,800 surplus seats with his plan, which would have to be approved by the county school board, County Council and voters. The budget year begins in July, and the spending proposal contains no increase in local income and property tax rates. Those taxes haven't been raised in years.
Instead, over the next six years, the county would ask voters to approve bond referendums that devote a much larger portion to education than past bond programs, for a total of $460 million in school borrowing. The plan would start this November with a $158 million school bond question.
Other needs that require bond funding, such as public works and recreation projects, would get a smaller portion than usual, and the county would make up for that by paying cash where it can for capital construction, Kamenetz said.
The schools plan relies on $240 million from the state over the next six years, which administration officials say is in line with past state funding for school construction.
But Yara Cheikh, a member of the education committee for the League of Women Voters Baltimore County, pointed out that some projects proposed by Kamenetz have not received state funding.
"Moving forward we need to scrutinize the long term 10 year construction program to ensure that it supports and maintains community schools, allows for smaller class size and provides a 21st century learning environment," Cheikh, who is also Hampton Elementary PTA president, said in an email. "Not everything that had been proposed to date marries those three priorities."
Of the projects outlined Tuesday by Kamenetz, those that have not yet received state funds include proposed new schools or additions to Halstead Academy, and Cromwell Valley, Loch Raven and Catonsville elementary schools, according to David Lever, who oversees school construction for the state.
State officials have questions about the Cromwell Valley project and Halstead, and the school board is expected to take votes this month that will allow the state to make decisions on Catonsville and Loch Raven elementary schools, he said.
Among the new schools county officials want to build are 700-seat elementary buildings in Owings Mills, White Marsh, Battle Grove/Charlesmont, and Middle River. The plan calls for a number of additions and renovations throughout the county.
When taken into account with school projects that have been funded over the past few years, the county, by 2021, will have spent more than $1 billion in a decade on school construction, Kamenetz said.
Councilman Tom Quirk, who chairs the county's Spending Affordability Committee, said if voters approve the proposed bond issues, the county will still be within debt guidelines, which are meant to ensure that the county doesn't borrow too much and that it maintains high bond ratings.
"Even though this budget is aggressive, by no means is it overly aggressive," the Catonsville Democrat said. "It's still very fiscally responsible."
While Kamenetz focused his address on school construction, his budget proposal does not fully fund the roughly $803 million request the school system made for operating expenses, trimming it by about $3 million.
It calls for a nearly 4 percent increase in county operating expenses, to $1.75 billion, and would allocate roughly $176 million for capital expenditures.
The spending plan will now go to the County Council for consideration. Under the county charter, council members can only cut from the budget — they cannot add funding. Council Chairwoman Cathy Bevins said she was pleased with the focus on schools.
"I think it is was a great message today for parents whose children go to our public school system, for teachers who work in our schools, and for principals who lead our schools," she said.
Kamenetz's budget includes no furloughs or layoffs for county employees, as agreed upon during contract talks with labor groups representing public workers. Unionized employees are also scheduled to get 3 percent bonuses this fall.
The budget devotes funding to replacing county facilities, including $6.5 million to build a new Towson fire station and $6 million to turn the former Eastwood Elementary school into a new North Point police precinct.
It also would provide $6 million to build a new animal shelter to replace the current one in Baldwin, a $1 million increase over what officials had projected the new facility would cost.
A public hearing on the budget is scheduled for April 29.
Council members are scheduled to hear budget presentations from county agency chiefs throughout May, with a vote scheduled for May 22.
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