Executive criticizes Baltimore Co. school budget


A nearly $600 million budget request approved without cuts Wednesday night by Baltimore County's school board won quick criticism yesterday from the new county executive, and appeared unlikely to escape trimming at the hands of elected officials.

Terming the board's endorsement of Superintendent Stuart Berger's full budget proposal "unfortunate," County Executive C. A. Dutch Ruppersberger III said, "I'm disappointed, it raises expectations. It is unfortunate that the school board does not understand how serious our revenue situation is."

Mr. Ruppersberger reiterated his opposition to raising county property taxes, and estimated that the $36 million increase in school spending sought by the board would require a 17-cent tax boost. He said the county needed to encourage people to live and stay in Baltimore County, "and raising taxes isn't the way to do it."

"Even if I wanted to raise taxes, which I don't, I don't have one vote on the County Council to raise taxes," Mr. Ruppersberger said. The county will not have enough money to give county workers, including teachers, a general pay raise next year, he said.

Before the school board unanimously approved the budget request, members made changes to provide for about 150 more teaching and instructional assistant positions, but it did not trim the package by so much as a penny. Several said that during lengthy board work sessions, they did not even touch on cutting back Dr. Berger's proposal.

"No, I don't remember anybody around the table saying, 'Let's cut the budget,' " board member Dunbar Brooks said yesterday.

Mr. Ruppersberger would not be drawn into a dispute with board members yesterday, and did not directly respond to board Vice President Calvin Disney's statement before Wednesday's budget vote that elected officials "must have the courage to tell the public we must increase taxes to decrease class size."

The board's $599.2 million request includes "a mere $40 million of discretionary money," Mr. Disney said. The rest is committed for salaries and benefits for existing employees and for utilities and other building services.

"Parents believe there's all this money in that budget and there isn't," he said yesterday. "The only way to significantly reduce class size is to increase taxes."

Mr. Disney said he met with the county executive yesterday morning and understood his position. "I think it will be extremely difficult for him to fully fund the budget."

Dr. Berger had little to say about the budget yesterday. "It's in the next step of the process. It's over there now. I'm done," he said. But he did support Mr. Disney's comments.

"He's absolutely correct. There's no discretionary money in there," said Dr. Berger, who has called his spending plan a "status quo" budget.

Mr. Ruppersberger said he is puzzled by the school board's confrontational attitude. "Here's an executive they can work with," he said, repeating that education and public safety have been his highest priorities.

But confrontation between the board and elected county officials has been a ritual of the budget process because of the roles they play -- the board seeing itself as an advocate for children and their schools, and the executive and council charged with raising the money.

The county executive "has the bigger picture" on revenue and needs of various government programs, said board President Paul Cunningham. "We are fanatics for kids."

The budget does not include a pay increase for teachers, although there is a restructuring of some salary scales. With the positions added by the board, it asks for about 400 new teachers and teachers' aides, plus principals for two new alternative schools and about a dozen new assistant principals. The cost of these positions is more than $14 million.

Among other budget items are $2.5 million to help about 27 schools that are losing Chapter I federal funds for children from low-income families, $2.7 million for technology equipment for 20 elementary schools, and $1 million for the Office of Athletics to replace old equipment and raise coaches' compensation.

In comments to a group of homebuilders yesterday, Mr. Ruppersberger stressed how worrisome the county's revenue picture is.

Income tax revenues are growing slowly. According to state comparisons of income tax revenues for the last three months of 1994 compared to the same period in 1993, Baltimore County is third from last in income tax revenue growth among Maryland's 24 subdivisions -- ahead of only Dorchester County and Baltimore City.

The budget disagreement comes on the heels of a dispute over a school fund of $10.7 million in unused health insurance premiums. The County Council, encouraged by Mr. Ruppersberger, authorized an audit of the fund last week to determine if Dr. Berger has spent that money without proper authority.

The measure allows the county auditor to hire an auditing firm to complete the review before the county executive announces his budget April 12. The action was taken because school officials refused to give the executive's school finance expert all the information she requested on the fund's use, and because some county officials suspect Dr. Berger has already spent the money.

Dr. Berger insists that the $10.7 million is school money and he has the right to spend it.

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