Schools Superintendent Michael E. Hickey and the Howard County school board began intensive lobbying for more money last night, warning of fewer teachers, textbooks and repairs if the county executive's operating budget is approved as proposed.
The board meeting was the unofficial start of three weeks of lobbying in hopes of getting the County Council to restore all, or some, of the $4.4 million that County Executive Charles I. Ecker trimmed from the school system's $234.5 million operating spending request for the next school year.
"The growth we're experiencing just eats that additional money up," Dr. Hickey told the board. "It's really a problem to catch up, or fund new initiatives when the increased population continues to impact us and impact the county's budget."
Board members also are seeking to persuade the council to restore at least a portion of the $9.4 million in construction money that Mr. Ecker slashed from the school board's $51.3 million capital budget request for new schools, additions and renovations.
Such a severe cut likely would require the school system to significantly reduce the size of at least a half-dozen new elementary and middle schools scheduled to be built over the next six years, said Sydney L. Cousin, the associate superintendent of finance and operations.
"We need the money. We need the new schools," said board member Sandra French. "They are not Taj Mahals. They hold hundreds of little bodies . . . [and] you need the space for them so they don't feel crammed in like little rats."
Last night's meeting was the first opportunity for school officials to say what programs might be affected if the board's operating and capital budget requests are reduced as recommended by Mr. Ecker.
"I feel we owe it not only to the [school] board but to the community to show the impact of the cuts that the executive has proposed," Dr. Hickey said. He emphasized that the school system is only proposing what might be cut, and that the board will have the final say when it approves the school system's budget June 1.
Among the more severe options proposed by Dr. Hickey are six fewer teachers, more than $900,000 less for textbooks, and $300,000 less for building repairs. A $450,000 reduction in the system's contribution to the benefits of food service workers also could mean higher prices for school lunches, he said.
Board members said they will do everything they can to make cuts that have the least impact on classrooms. "I do not like reducing the staffing level by six positions," said Susan Cook, board chairwoman. "I am not willing to do that. If I have to dig around for other money, let's get out the shovels."
Board member Karen Campbell said she would look to cut from other areas in the budget, such as transportation, to avoid reducing textbook purchases and school repairs.
In the capital budget, in addition to smaller new schools, cuts could include an $835,000 reduction in the proposed addition for Hammond High School and a $2.5 million reduction in major renovations planned for older schools.
The school system is waiting for the Maryland Board of Public Works' decision next week on how much school construction money it will give Howard. Although Mr. Ecker has said that any money granted to the school system would go to reduce the county's bond obligation, school officials were optimistic last night that they might get to use at least some of the additional money, which could be as much as $9 million, for capital projects.
But Dr. Hickey acknowledged that the County Council is unlikely to restore all the school system's operating and capital budget requests. "It is unrealistic to anticipate that, even though they might want to, they'll feel financially able to restore all of the cuts," he said.
Because of slow growth in revenues, the county's budget situation is as difficult as the school system's, and the council would need to either cut from other areas that already have been reduced, or raise taxes to meet the school board's operating budget request. A majority of the council and Mr. Ecker already have ruled out raising taxes this year.
The bulk of the lobbying for the education budget likely will come Thursday night, when board members, school administrators and other supporters of the schools are scheduled to testify before the council.
The council is scheduled to approve a final version of the county budget May 19.