An impasse between county school officials and the union representing secretaries and teacher assistants is heading for non-binding arbitration.

State School Superintendent Joseph Shilling has ruled thatan arbitrator will review the case, as both sides requested, union and school officials said yesterday.

The Secretaries and Assistants Association of Anne Arundel Countywalked away from contract negotiations three weeks ago, after schoolofficials rejected its offer to give up pay raises in exchange for job security.

The arbitrator, to be chosen by both sides, will first try to bring the two sides to an agreement. Failing that, the arbitrator would begin formal "fact-finding" hearings, with witnesses and testimony from both sides, then issue conclusions and recommendations.

The union's contract provides no recourse beyond non-binding arbitration but a return to the bargaining table.

School board and union representatives welcomed the superintendent's decision yesterday,holding out hope that an unbiased third party could lead to an agreement both sides could live with.

"It's unfortunate that it came tothis, but I definitely think there will be some movement on the other end now," said Jeanne Jones, who represents the 1,200-member association.

She said union members have all but abandoned hope of getting more money, given the tight economy and a severe crunch leaving the county budget in "dire straits."

But at the same time, Jones said, the union considers other goals much more within reach, particularly changes in contract language on job security.

She said union leaders want employees afforded more protection in contract provisions on transfers, layoffs and "reductions-in-force."

Among other key goals, the union wants individual employees to receive the right to binding arbitration in disputes with supervisors.

William Scott, theschool board's assistant supervisor for administration, said, "The board will certainly view the proceedings with interest. I'm sure someof our contentions will be reaffirmed, and some of theirs will be."

Also yesterday, school administration officials updated school board members on a budget deficit that appears to shrink practically by the day.

Board members preparing for last night's hearing on Superintendent Larry L. Lorton's $358.7 million budget proposal got some good news as their marathon day began with a morning meeting.

Jack White, the school system's budget officer, produced figures showing that the deficit actually had suddenly become a surplus -- maybe.

White explained that unanticipated revenue, cost-cutting measures and savings on such costs as fuel for buses had resulted in a projected $400,000 surplus for the current budget year.

He cautioned, however, that the projections could change before the budget year ends and urged frugality.

Board member Thomas Twombly agreed, saying a sluggish economy and a pinch on money from all government sources would force the school system to be tight-fisted.

"We have to be more efficient and more prudent with our budget dollars, not only this year, but in the years to come," he said.

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