Cousin proposes 1.9 percent increase in school spending

Fiscal year 2013 is shaping up to be another tight one for Howard County schools.

Superintendent Sydney Cousin Thursday presented his proposed $697 million budget for next year to the county board of education. The budget is an increase of $13.3 million, or 1.9 percent, over the previous year — which was a 1.2 percent increase over the year before that.

Cousin's presentation marks the beginning of a months-long budget process, culminating with the board's final approval at the end of May.

"(The funding request) is both realistic and fiscally responsible," Cousin said in his budget statement. "It reflects our priorities as well as our commitment to good stewardship and ensures our schools have the funding necessary to provide the world-class education our students deserve and our community expects."

The budget request indicates another "maintenance-of-effort" year, said Ray Brown, the system's chief operating officer, which means the only increases are directly related to accommodating the system's increase in enrollment.

A public hearing on the request is scheduled for Jan. 31. The budget is set to go before the Howard County Council in April.

While the system can be proud of the accomplishments it has made, Cousin said, competing nationally can no longer be sufficient.

"We have an obligation to project, from being the best in the nation to being the best in the world," Cousin said. "Our challenge will be to stay the course, and not let the current economic climate deter our progress. … We recognize, as we begin the development of this budget, that funding will be limited. With the sluggish economy, state funding remains uncertain and federal grants are decreasing."

Pay hikes, new hires

Increases in the budget from last year can be broken down into four categories, Brown said: funding to continue programs, funding to enhance programs, funding to accommodate for increased enrollment and funding for mandatory increases.

One of those mandatory increases, totaling $4.8 million, funds the second of the half-step increases in pay for members of the Howard County Education Association, the union representing more than 4,500 educators. The first half-step went into effect in the 2012 fiscal year.

"A step is literally the next step in the salary scale — people move a step if we negotiate it (during contract negotiations)," said Sue Mascaro, chief of staff and former director of staff relations. "For each individual (a full step) it's about a 2.2 percent increase (in salary)."

Other mandatory increases include more funding for transportation for homeless students, for substitute teachers and for non-public school placement of special needs students.

As for continuing and enhancing programs, schools spokeswoman Patti Caplan said the world language pilot program, established this year, is set to expand in the 2012-2013 academic year, creating about four new positions at the elementary and middle school levels.

Overall, the system will add some 74 employees, Caplan said, all but a handful to accommodate increased enrollment.

Projected enrollment for the 2012-2013 academic year is expected to be 51,996 students, 876 more than last year.

The system has no plans to lay off or furlough employees, Brown said.

Under the proposed budget request, budget Director Kathleen Swinson said, the per-pupil expenditure is about $9,000.

"This budget protects the classroom by maintaining class sizes, adding positions and funding resources," Cousin said, noting the budget contains few new initiatives.

All told, the increases requested total about $17.2 million, about $4 million more than the increase in funds requested.

Brown said the system is making up that difference in a variety of ways: $2.5 million has been saved because of teacher turnover, for example, and about $1.1 million has been saved through decreased utility usage. Other small reductions will contribute to offsetting that gap, Brown said.

Board members called the budget encouraging.

"The fact that we were able to re-purpose $4 million is impressive, especially after last year's (budget) was so bare-boned," said board Chairwoman Sandra French.

"Our growth isn't as rapid as it was 10 years ago, but it's still happening and we need to accommodate that," French said, noting that the proposed budget does exactly that. "We have to make sure our students have reasonable class sizes, and the teachers have reasonable responsibilities."

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