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Dance unveils $1.5 billion budget for Baltimore County schools

Baltimore County School Superintendent Dallas Dance is slowing down the rollout of his signature technology initiative next school year, but the program would continue to grow under a $1.5 billion budget plan he presented to the school board Tuesday night.

Under the budget plan, which must go to the County Council for approval, Dance proposes to expand foreign language instruction in elementary schools and add teachers for special education and students learning English as a second language.

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In total, spending next school year would increase by $59.5 million, or 4.3 percent. About $34 million is designated for increased pay and benefits for employees, though the county has not completed negotiations with employee unions. Dance said he has discussed the budget with County Executive Kevin Kamenetz and his staff. While they have not given Dance any assurances, he said, the county "appears to recognize it is a reasonable request."

The superintendent is asking for a 2 percent increase in funding above what is required under state law.

Dance, now in his fourth year as superintendent, is requesting $14.5 million to expand the four-year, $270 million program designed to give laptops to every student in the school system. All elementary students in grades one through five are to get the laptops next year, but the program will not expand as quickly in middle schools.

This year, sixth-graders in half a dozen middle schools got the devices, and next year, those schools are to get them for students in sixth and seventh grades. While the original plan called for a wide expansion in the middle grades next year, only sixth-graders will be getting the devices at the remaining middle schools.

Dance made the decision based on feedback that the rollout in the pilot middle schools was not as smooth as it had been in the elementary schools.

"It is a radical change, and I have only seen six months" of the program in the middle schools, he said. "I would prefer we adjust a little."

Dance said he believes middle school teachers needed more training on how to teach with the devices and use the accompanying curriculum. He has said he is trying to change the teaching model to place more emphasis on students working in groups.

The initiative will also move more slowly into high schools. Three high schools will be chosen to get the devices next year in what would be a two-year pilot.

"It allows me to free up money to do the things we want to do for academic growth," he said, including money to hire Spanish teachers for a number of elementary schools.

The budget increase would pay for an additional 76 teachers to handle 1,225 new students expected next fall, largely in elementary schools. County schools have been growing by about 1,000 students a year for several years. Enrollment is now more than 110,000 students, making Baltimore County's one of the 25 largest school systems in the nation.

Dance said he also wants to provide 30 more teachers for special education students, particularly because there has been a growing percentage of those who are developmentally delayed or have autism. Parents of special education students have expressed concerns about the lack of support for their students, and Dance said he has been working with a citizen advisory group to alleviate those concerns.

The percentage of immigrant students and those whose first language is not English has increased by 22 percent in the past four years. Dance said he will add 16 more specialized teachers to deal with that population, on top of the 10 added this year.

The English as a Second Language teacher to student ratio in county elementary schools is 1 to 71, and in secondary schools is 1 to 33 — a ratio far higher than in Baltimore City and the state as a whole. Although Baltimore County has more immigrants who are learning English than the city, the county spends $6.8 million yearly compared to the city's $16.8 million on such programs.

Dance's budget also provides for a slight increase in pay for bus drivers, who are being paid less than drivers in surrounding counties. The school system is having difficulty attracting drivers willing to work for far less an hour than they can earn working for the large bus companies.

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Dance budget proposals

• $14.5 million for student laptops

•$34 million for employee pay raises

•$9.3 million to hire more teachers

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