The evening had all the marks of a sandbox fight: testy words, considerable wrangling and agreement that not a whole lot had been accomplished in the end.

The only difference was nobody had much fun whenthe county board of education met Monday to cut the school superintendent's proposed budget.

There wasn't much cutting going on, either. After more than four hours, the board had nipped $383,000 off a proposed $153 million 1991-1992 school operating budget -- less than 1 percent.

The proposed budget requests a 21 percent increase over last year.

The biggest cut was $300,000 from curriculum and staff development.

The board also voted to freeze superintendent Ray R. Keech's salary at its current $92,794 and docked all executive salaries to a 2 percent increase, from the recommended 8 percent negotiated in a three-year contractfor school employees.

The board also reduced a proposed $25,000 expenditure for distribution of the annual report to the public to $3,000, saving $22,000. They cut $2,000 in postage for mailing the annual reports.

The total for the administrative cuts came to $72,000,says G. William Rufenacht, director of finance for the county schoolsystem.

Before voting on trims to the budget, they first listenedas more than a dozen parents and teachers implored them not to cut money from various programs, from art to special education. And then the board went through the budget, almost an inch thick, paragraph by paragraph.

The board knew they had to cut something: The county council has warned the school board that the county likely won't be able to afford all requests in the proposed budget.

Board members shook their heads and looked worried.

"We're having to bite the bullet and do what has to be done," said Percy Williams. "We're not happy about that. We're sorry the economy isn't what it was in other years."

But when it came down to it, not many board members, it seemed, wanted to be the ones to wield the knife.

The only one turning the metaphors into reality was board member Ronald Eaton, who repeatedly proposed small cuts, only to have the suggestions die without asecond from another board member.

"Everything in here is not critical," said Eaton, wrangling over postal costs.

"Can we have an explanation of that (cost increase)?" said Eaton.

"Folks, we're gonna be all night here," said Eaton. "Cause I've got (a proposed cut)on every line."

Board president Richard C. Molinaro demanded, "What's the significance of that statement?"

Eaton tapped his feet and smoothed his hair.

The board wrangled. The audience of about 30 die-hards fidgeted in their seats. The pages of the budget turned.

Finally, the board members tackled the instructional salaries category, cutting more than $300,000, reducing by 19 percent six requests for curriculum development, staff development (improving teachers' skills) and

school improvement projects (public relations programs, for example).

The sabbatical leave provision for next year was eliminated, bringing the cuts from the instructional salaries category to $311,000; the grand total for the evening to $383,000.

But by 11 p.m. the job wasn't nearly done, and the board agreed to meet again yesterday to finish. That was the last scheduled meeting before the regular board meeting Feb. 11, when the school board plans to adopt a budget. A proposed budget must be ready for the county executive by Feb. 18.

After Monday's meeting, Molinaro called the evening a typical budget process.

"It always takes a while to do it,and it's always hard," he said. "We're not shooting at a targeted amount. What happens, happens."

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