Baltimore County delegation asks Kamenetz to restore teaching positions

A group of Baltimore County delegates has written a letter to County Executive Kevin Kamenetz asking that he restore teaching positions the school system was planning to eliminate in July.

In a strongly worded letter, the delegates said the proposal to eliminate nearly 200 positions is "an unacceptable way to ensure that we have quality education in our public schools." They said that because they worked hard to add $13 million to the county school budget that had been left out of Gov. Martin O'Malley's proposed budget for next year, they want "all additional funding in the budget [to] be directed at retaining and hiring teachers first."

Fourteen of the delegation's 21 members signed the letter, including the chairman, Del. John A. Olszewski, and Del. Stephen Lafferty, the vice chairman. They criticized the apparent failure of the school system to look at cutting administrators, managers and other staff members who do not work in the schools, saying it set the wrong priorities for the coming year.

Lafferty said it is relatively rare for delegates to express concerns about the school system's budget, but they felt strongly that the first cuts should not be made to classrooms.

"The county executive knows this is a serious situation," Lafferty said in an interview. "Just as we continue to recognize the importance of education, I think he and the County Council do too."

Superintendent Joe A. Hairston proposed a budget, which was approved by the county school board, that would reduce the number of teaching positions by 196 through attrition. The reductions would be felt the most in high schools, where faculty positions are being cut by about 10 percent. Teachers say that classes would be larger, and that Advanced Placement and elective courses with small numbers of students would be eliminated. The school system says AP classes would be eliminated only if few students want to take the class. On Monday, students protested the teacher cuts in front of the courthouse in Towson.

The school system's budget must be approved by Kamenetz and the County Council. While Kamenetz cannot force the school system to add teaching positions or change line items in the budget, he can move funds from one large category in the school budget to another.

Kamenetz could elect to move money from the administration category in the school budget to instruction salaries or find several million dollars in other areas of the county budget to help fund the positions. But even if the county executive makes such moves, Hairston does not have to restore the teaching positions.

Kamenetz will present his budget to the County Council on April 14, shortly after the General Assembly session ends. If, as expected, the legislature approves changes to the state budget that would restore education funding, the Baltimore County schools would get about $6.8 million more, about half of the $12 million that would be needed to restore all of the teaching positions.

The county executive, through a spokeswoman, declined to comment on the letter or the school budget because the state budget had not been finalized.

Kamenetz "is waiting to see what is what until he speculates on what can be done for the school budget," said Ellen Kobler, who suggested that there might be another issue.

"It appears that there is significant underfunding of the health care costs" for Baltimore County public school employees, and analysts are developing an estimate of how much it would cost to fix the problem, the spokeswoman said.

Hairston had no comment on the letter.

"The school superintendent can ignore it, but if he does, he does it at some peril," said Donald F. Norris, professor of public policy at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County. "The delegation could put enormous pressure on the school board to change it."

Norris said the school system could pay a price in the future because it needs the legislators to work on its behalf.

County Councilwoman Vicki Almond said that she strongly supports the letter and hopes that there is an "evaluation of nonclassroom personnel" by the school system to see if more money can be shifted to retain teachers.

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