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County Council questions school budget director

From our colleague Raven L. Hill, who covers Baltimore County government:

UPDATED at 7 p.m. Tuesday:

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Baltimore County Council members had a message Tuesday for the local school system: Cut back on top-level administrative positions.

With the county's proposed budget scheduled for release in a few days, Council Chairman John Olszewski Sr. had tough questions at the council's work-session meeting for Baltimore County Public Schools budget director George Sarris.

Olszewski questioned Sarris, who was at the meeting for an unrelated issue, about the anticipated savings from eliminating more than 196 teacher positions, saying that he'd been told the district will save more than the estimated $15.8 million.

"If that's the case," Olszewski said, "then I want to know where that money is going."

Sarris said that was not the case, adding that an average salary of $61,336 was used to calculate the savings. The jobs will be cut through attrition, not firings or layoffs.

However, Olszewski, an Edgemere Democrat, also expressed concern that the district was not doing enough to keep its costs in check, saying that long-vacant administrative positions should be frozen. Citing the recent hiring of Deputy Superintendent Renee Foose, whose position had been open for nine months, the council chairman also suggested that the district hold off on filling a liberal arts director position and deputy area superintendent for middle schools. Foose will be paid $214,000 annually.

"If we're going to have less teachers then the common-sense approach should be less administrative individuals as well," he said. "If sacrifices have to be made then they have to be made all the way around, not just in particular groups."

The local teachers union and some members of the county's state legislative delegation have called for the school system to restore some teaching jobs by cutting back on administrative costs. County Executive Kevin Kamenetz, a Democrat, has said the county can't afford to restore the positions in his budget plan, which is scheduled for introduction this week.

Councilman Kenneth N. Oliver, a Randallstown Democrat, recommended combining some top-level positions, and asked Sarris whether the district is using operating funds for some testing and assessment materials that could be purchased with grants. Sarris replied that the district was not.

Reached after the meeting, schools Superintendent Joe A. Hairston said the district has implemented numerous cost-saving measures over the past year, such as not adding new programs.

The school system restructured the executive team to reduce the number of top-level administrators from 12 to 9 and gave teachers raises, Hairston said.

"We have not cut any teachers. There have been no layoffs of teachers, there have been no furloughs of teachers," he said. "We've been consistent with our message since the beginning of our budget presentation in January. The budget was designed to preserve teaching positions and programs, and we used $15 million to pass on salary increments to teachers and staff."

Olszweski said he wants any excess savings to go toward keeping teacher jobs.

"We know we can't restore all of those positions, but if we can restore a few I think that's heading in the right direction," Olszewski said.

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The school district and council will meet next month to discuss the budget.

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