School officials look with dread on proposed cuts

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Carroll County educators say a new legislative proposal to shift the burden for Social Security taxes onto local government would mean a serious cut -- and a permanent one -- in state money for schools.

William Hyde, assistant superintendent for administration for Carroll County Schools, said he is hoping legislators think twice about what such a permanent cut would mean.

"Is the legislature willing to decide at this point it wants to change its position in terms of funding public education and move away from its previous level of commitment?" he asked.

Echoing that concern was Harold Fox, a staff member of the Maryland State Teachers Association who works in the Carroll office of the union.

"It's another example of the state trying to abrogate its responsibility tofund education," Mr. Fox said.

Education officials had been expecting to swallow another $2.5 million to $3 million this year once the state cuts to county government are ironed out and get passed on to them by the Carroll commissioners.

But this new proposal could mean up to $3.7 million in cuts to the $112 million school budget. The $3.7 million is the amount of Social Security taxes the state pays for Carroll County teachers. The state has traditionally paid the employer portion of Social Security taxes for teachers, public librarians and community college professors.

The new plan, advocated by some legislative leaders, calls for the state to save $147 million by shifting the burden to counties to pay those taxes.

In total, Carroll stands to lose $4.1 million for all those employee categories if the plan is approved by the legislature.

A previous package of cuts proposed by the governor would have Carroll losing about $5 million, and the expectation among county and school officials was that the schools would lose an amount proportionate to their budget, which is about half of the total county budget.

"Our anticipation was we'll receive a proportionate share of those cuts," Mr. Hyde said. "The spending plan we put in place anticipated that."

The schools have had a plan in place since July 1 to reduce spending on non-salary items such as supplies, and there are several positions on hold, including about 20 teaching jobs, Mr. Hyde said.

The difference between the most recent proposal and others that have been made for close to the same amount of money is that this one means a permanent shift in responsibility for school funding, Mr. Hyde said.

SG Also, the dollar amount could be greater -- $3.7 million instead of

$2.5 million.

Although Mr. Hyde said officials would wait until cuts are final before giving details on further plans, Mr. Fox said an inevitable result would be larger classes.

Carroll Community College Director of Finance Alan Schuman said the Social Security change, as long as it was instead of and not in addition to further cuts, would not harm the college.

The college already has suffered a state cut of $140,000 from its $6 million budget through the Maryland Higher Education Commission. It had expected another $350,000 in cuts if the original plan to reduce local government aid goes into effect.

But if the alternative Social Security package is approved, Carroll Community College's share of those expenses is only $65,000, Mr. Schuman said.

However, he noted that the Carroll commissioners would have ** discretion on how they distribute the cuts. The commissioners declined to comment on the proposal or speculate on how they might deal with it because they will not be officially briefed until Monday.

In other communities in the Baltimore area, officials agreed that the cuts would be difficult to handle:

Baltimore

Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke was preparing for the worst. He said the city's 26,000 employees will have to accept pay reductions or face layoffs for the city to absorb the $20 million it is likely to lose.

"We don't have many options," Mr. Schmoke said. "In a budget that is 80 percent personnel, we are left with some combination of salary reductions, layoffs and furloughs."

Mr. Schmoke's plans are sure to be opposed by municipal employee unions, who say their members have shouldered the brunt of the city's budget problems. They point out that city workers have not had a pay increase for two years. And last year, city employees were forced to take a 2 1/2 -day pay cut. A federal lawsuit filed by the unions to force the city to restore that cut was successful, but it is being appealed by the city.

Baltimore County

County Executive Roger B. Hayden accused Gov. William Donald Schaefer and the state's legislative leaders of dumping Maryland's financial problems on local governments, instead of solving them.

"The compact has been broken," Mr. Hayden said of the long-standing relationship under which the state has returned some of its tax dollars for local use.

When the last round of reductions came through, Mr. Hayden ordered his departments to rank their programs in order of importance. He said he will make his decisions on which programs to cut after reviewing their findings next month.

Anne Arundel County

Education will not bear the brunt of the $14.4 million proposed cut, County Executive Robert R. Neall promised yesterday.

"A lot of people who are against this cut say it's an education cut. Nothing could be further from the truth," said Mr. Neall, who first made the proposal to state budget officials.

Mr. Neall said he already has worked out a way to absorb the cut in aid for this year without affecting services and without touching his $10 million "rainy day fund."

He will pay for the cuts through savings in the county's recent voluntary retirement program, by deferring payment on certain capital projects and by drawing on a $7 million budget surplus from last year.

While he acknowledged the education budget would appear to be taking a big hit, he intends to compensate by transferring funds from other departments.

"Obviously we're not going to make them eat the whole thing. We'll sit down and try to share the misery," Mr. Neall said.

Howard County

School Superintendent Michael E. Hickey yesterday reacted angrily to the proposed cut.

"It's an unconscionable meat-ax approach that is really wrong, really a disservice to the school system. A silver bullet that is quick and dirty," Mr. Hickey said.

"I don't expect the legislature is going to support this," he said. "It's a very poor proposal to do something like that with six months left in the fiscal year."

The $6.9 million cut in Howard County comes on top of $700,000 stripped from the local health department in two rounds of state cuts earlier this year. The governor reduced aid statewide to county health departments by $11.6 million this month.

County Executive Charles I. Ecker ruled out a tax increase yesterday. He said he will come up with a plan to cover the cuts in the next two weeks.

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