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Officials of four unions representing school system employees say they want to know why they were told the Board of Education's public work session Monday night -- at which the possibility of eliminating pay raises next year was discussed -- was open to board members only.

Dee Zepp, president of the Secretaries and Assistants Association of Anne Arundel County, said she and other union representatives were told by school Superintendent Larry L. Lorton Monday that the meeting would be closed. Zepp said the superintendent agreed to meet with union representatives Tuesday to discuss the meeting.

But school officials decided to open Monday night's work session on the budget. Zepp and other representatives said they were not told in time, even after calling the board during the day Monday.

"We certainly should have heard what was being discussed," Zepp said.

"It would have taken only four phone calls to let the unions know.

"We did not find that to be cooperative, considering the four unions are asked to have members give up vacation time to bail the board out. And we're not informed of an open meeting? SAAAC is very disappointed and it makes it very hard to be cooperative."

Lorton met with union members last week to ask that principals, pupil personnel workers and central office secretaries -- all 12-month employees --take Dec. 26, 27, and 28 off in order to save $75,000 on heating and lights.

"We are extremely upset," Tom Paolino, president of the Teachers Association of Anne Arundel County, said yesterday. "We are disappointed and dismayed at the supreme lack of commitment to working with employee groups. I didn't find out until this morning that yesterday's meeting was open. I called his office twice (Monday). The superintendent obviously has no desire to work with us."

Richard Kovelant, executive director of the Association of Education Leaders, learned the meeting would be open late Monday evening. AEL has yet to complete negotiations on salary differentials -- the difference in pay between principals and those they supervise -- left over from the previous contract. A salary freeze would be an additional blow for a group already complaining of salaries too close to those of county teachers.

"We've got to evaluate our situation in light of what they're telling us," Kovelant said. "No one will dispute that there is a crunch, but how long it will last and how serious is a matter of interpretation. It's terribly frustrating."

While AEL said the issue will be addressed by the general membership, if little or no salary increases are offered by school board members, unions may seek one-year contracts and language promising improved benefits later.

County Executive Robert R. Neall and other county budget officials presented their state of the county report during Monday night's meeting.

Assistant County Auditor Bruce Emge also was on hand to reinforce the fiscal message.

"My understanding is that they are talking about no increases," Emge said yesterday. "The economy doesn't look too good, and the prospect for the near future doesn't look much brighter.

"We can't tell (the board) what to do," he said. "We are just telling them what the financial outlook is -- so when they come down with the budget they will know what the county is looking at, and they won't come down with something unreasonable."

Before board members can complete negotiations with the unions or begin to hammer out budget proposals for next year, they must figure out how to handle the county's $8 million deficit.

Already, board members are expecting to slice off $3 million using money from outside sources, including $1 million for special education students attending schools outside the county, $1 million for educating students living on military bases and $1 million from various grants.

But after Monday's session, board members could agree on ways to save only about $3.8 million of the total deficit.

"We want to make sure cuts will have the least possible effect on students and personnel," board president Nancy Gist said yesterday. "This is not a Board of Education problem, but every department is charged with the same thing, to shrink the budget (while continuing) services. We have to make critical and judicial moves while maintaining essential programs.

"It all comes out of the same pocket," she said, "and it's not as deep as it used to be."

Board members approved a plan to turn down thermostats to 68 degrees in elementary schools, 65 in high schools and the central office, and 55 degrees in unoccupied areas -- for a projected savings of $160,000. Another $620,000 will be saved by eliminating overtime for custodians.

But other issues require action during a regular board meeting.

The board also is considering charging students for transportation to Arlington Echo for water safety programs. They also are looking to transport participants in the Teen Mom program at Meade Senior on regular school buses, eliminating special routes for a savings of $17,000.

"I hope that it was one meeting in a series of on-going dialogues between the county and the board," board member Vincent Leggett said. "If we can work together, we can do a lot better."

Board vice president Jo Ann Tollenger said she is anxious to see the budget balanced.

"When we spend almost $1 million a day, we can't wait too long," she said. "If we lose momentum, we lose opportunities and options not to affect people. I am anxious to move ahead, because we have over 7,000 employees wondering what the heck we are going to do."

Board members will continue to review budget cuts during the Jan. 9 school board meeting.

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