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Budget hearing, school review session puts issues on council radar

Both the haves and have-nots — those whose pet projects or causes have either been embraced or rejected in County Executive Steve Schuh's first budget proposal — gathered at North County High School on Wednesday to lobby the County Council.

More than 200 citizens turned out to make their case for an array of interests that ranged from bike paths and bond ratings to county tennis courts and teacher compensation.

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The hearing came as the $1.37 operating budget plan snakes its way through a 45-day bureaucratic gauntlet before being finalized next month.

In prior years, public testimony has played an influential role in the council's deliberations. Following last year's hearing, the council added several teaching positions to the school system's STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) program after supporters came out in droves to the public hearing.

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"Last year, the STEM teachers [issue] was a big one, and it wasn't on our radar until this meeting," said Councilman Derek Fink, a Pasadena Republican

Education dominated the evening's discussions, as it likely will throughout the council's deliberations. Parents and students — many in matching shirts as a sign of solidarity — called on council members to move forward with construction and renovation projects at area schools.

Testimony described aging infrastructure at Arnold Elementary, a leaky roof at High Point Elementary, regular water main breaks at George Cromwell Elementary and overcrowding at Tyler Heights Elementary that has forced students into 13 portable classrooms outside the main facility.

On the operating side of the education budget, the competition for funds is even stiffer. Superintendent George Arlotto said the administration's proposal provides $4.1 million to cover nearly $13 million in essential programs and support for students.

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Flanked by dozens of supporters, several speakers specifically implored the council to find additional funds for three bilingual facilitators to help serve the county's surging population of non-English speakers.

"I have been serving my community since I came to the U.S. … but the needs are getting too great that I just cannot do it all," said Mahwish Anwar, a volunteer who speaks seven languages. "The Board of Education always emphasizes equity, and this is an issue of equity."

Shanna Wohl, a school psychologist assigned to multiple schools, said her efforts to serve students are undermined by her workload.

"I can't help but feel I'm putting Band-Aids on problems and being reactive instead of proactive," said Wohl, who asked the council to fund two additional psychologist positions.

The council also heard from advocates of early childhood intervention services and support for special needs students, as well as supporters of STEM programs.

"You wish there was an unlimited pot of money obviously as a legislator, but in reality you know there's not, and you've got to start prioritizing and put everything in perspective," said Fink. "In a perfect world, we'd fund everything."

For the seventh consecutive year, the budget provides the Board of Education with the minimum amount of funding required by state law — known as the "maintenance of effort" level.

"I feel like Bill Murray in the movie 'Groundhog Day,' " said South River High School Principal William Myers, speaking on behalf of the Association of Educational Leaders. "Every year we come here and do this same dance."

Morning after

How public testimony shapes this year's budget remains to be seen, but its influence was already apparent the next morning as the council took a move in-depth review of the education budget Thursday.

Council members referenced testimony from the night before while asking Arlotto to weigh in on school psychologists and early childhood education issues.

If the council does opt to increase funding above maintenance of effort, the public hearing could play a key role in the decision.

"I think there's probably an indication among some (other councilman) that they're willing to at least move the barometer maybe one or two notches," said Councilman Pete Smith, a Democrat from Severn.

Smith noted the 3 percent tax cut included in Schuh's budget proposal that will have a $20 million impact on the budget, and said, "If we can give $20 million in property taxes, I don't see why we can't give $2 million to the school system.

The public hearings "are tough, because we have the ability to fund everything, but we've chosen not to," he said.

The council will hold a second public hearing on the budget 7 p.m. Monday at Annapolis High School, 2700 Riva Road.

The County Council must approve a budget by June 15.

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