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All school programs seen vulnerable to cuts tonight


"Everything is on the chopping block" tonight when the school board begins winnowing its proposed operating budget for fiscal 1996, Howard County school board President Susan J. Cook says.

The board had hoped the County Council would restore at least some of the $4.4 million County Executive Charles I. Ecker cut from the board's $234.5 million operating request.

But those hopes faded yesterday after a 50-minute meeting between school officials and council members produced so little substance that a second budget work session between them was canceled.

"I don't think they are going to give us a penny additional" for the operating budget, Ms. Cook said later. "The problem with the operating budget is that we were lean and mean already. Now, everything is on the chopping block. This is going to have a direct impact on students."

Among the cuts Ms. Cook said the board will consider tonight are reductions in athletic transportation, intramural sports, clubs and organizations that don't have a direct connection to academics, and the amount of new textbooks and supplies.

The capital budget picture appears only slightly brighter, she said.

"They said they would let us keep the [$2.8 million in] state money" that the state Board of Public Works voted to give Howard County last week for capital projects, Ms. Cook said.

The agreement to allow the school board to keep last week's state aid appears to have been made privately in a meeting of Mr. Ecker, School Superintendent Michael E. Hickey,Associate Superintendent Sydney L. Cousin, County Council Chairman Charles C. Feaga and Councilman Darrel Drown, Ms. Cook said.

It was not mentioned at yesterday's budget work session and apparently will not be discussed publicly until a final work session on the entire county budget next Wednesday. The council plans May 19 to set the tax rate and approve the county budget for fiscal 1996.

Before that vote, the council could restore the money Mr. Ecker cut from the education portion of the county budget -- cuts of $4.4 million from the operating request and $8.8 million from the capital request.

To restore operating funds, the council would have to cut spending elsewhere or raise taxes. It can restore funds to the capital budget, but that would require additional county borrowing.

In past years, the council has used its work sessions with the school board to talk about what to restore. This year, it did not delve into the budget. Members offered no clue as to how they might, as a body, deal with Mr. Ecker's cuts.

They not only canceled a second meeting with the school board but agreed to handle all communication with school officials between now and Wednesday's final work session individually and privately.

L No one is quite sure what's going to happen at that session.

County Budget Director Raymond S. Wacks, for example, says he has "not heard anything specifically" about the agreement to give the school board the state aid approved last week.

Mr. Ecker said in March that he would use additional state aid to reduce the county's contribution to the school capital budget rather than increase that budget by that amount, but has said since that he would reconsider the school board request.

Mr. Wacks says he won't know for sure what school officials and the executive have agreed until next week when Mr. Ecker returns to work full time after being away from his office most of this week because of the death of his mother.

Councilwoman Mary C. Lorsung of west Columbia said "it is pretty much understood" that the school system will get the state money for its capital budget, although she has not been briefed on the agreement.

Meanwhile, Ms. Lorsung has concerns about the operating portion of the school budget and was surprised to see a second work session on the school system request canceled. She's mainly worried the school board may seek to shave $220,000 from its budget by cutting six pool teachers.

"That's not an acceptable cut," Ms. Lorsung said.

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