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School budget approved


The Howard County school board approved a $230.2 million operating budget yesterday that falls 2 percent short of what it had requested to run the school system next year.

Although the budget will be almost $13 million more than for the current school year, the board still was forced to make more than $4 million in cuts to many items intended to handle the county's exploding student enrollment -- including additional staffing, new textbooks and an expanded monitoring program for underachieving black students.

"Everybody is bleeding. It's as simple as that," Chairwoman Susan Cook said as the board struggled to decide what to cut.

Among other areas that received significant cuts were building repairs, staff development workshops and new library books. Funds to pay teachers to supervise intramural and co-curricular programs in middle schools were eliminated, and school lunch prices may be increased.

"These are not cuts we want to make. This is a horrendous job," Ms. Cook said. "If it was up to us, we would have all of these things in our budget. They were there, but now we have to cut them."

Nevertheless, the budget does include money to hire about 70 new teachers to cope with new enrollment and to staff the new Elkridge Landing Middle School -- as well as money for about 43 teachers, classroom assistants and other personnel to manage the "inclusion" process, or mainstreaming of special education students.

The 36,000-pupil system is expected to gain a record 1,800 new students in the fall, which means that enrollment is growing about as quickly as the operating budget.

Perhaps the most difficult cut faced by board members was their decision not to allocate $50,000 in new funds to hire more "academic monitors" to help lower-achieving black students. The monitors -- who are part of the Black Student Achievement Program -- work with students to make sure they attend classes and do homework.

After lengthy debate, board members said they refused to increase funding for the program because they had not seen data showing that it has led to performance increases.

"I don't think we can afford to provide a friend for at-risk students just because that is good for them," said board member Karen Campbell. "We have to have some statistical data" to justify expanding the program.

After the board meeting, BSAP facilitator Gloria Washington bristled at Ms. Campbell's characterization of the academic monitors.

"They are not 'just friends' or 'surrogate parents' or 'mothers' to these children," she said. "They are professionals who are responsible for monitoring the academic progress of the students in their assigned schools."

She said she was disappointed that data the program collected during the past year was not shown to the board, but other school officials say the data is inadequate.

Instead of hiring more BSAP monitors, the board allocated the $50,000 to hire outside math tutors for the middle schools to help ensure students are prepared to enter the new high school technology magnet programs scheduled to begin in 1996-1997. The tutors will be a less expensive substitute for proposed middle school math assistants, jobs that were cut from the budget.

Board members also fired another round in their running conflict with the County Council and county executive, charging that the county government had betrayed them by breaking agreements.

"We learned a hard lesson this year, that gentlemen's agreements and even written agreements don't hold water," Ms. Cook said. "If I can't trust a person's word, then there is nothing left for me to trust."

Ms. Cook and her fellow board members were particularly upset because, at the last moment, the County Council's three Republican members decided to shift funds from one category to another in the school system's total operating budget.

The council traditionally has set an overall budget for the school system and allowed the board to dictate how it wants to divide up the money.

But two weeks ago, when the council passed the overall county budget, it cut $85,951 from the administrative portion of the school budget to eliminate the soon-to-be-vacant position of high school instructional director. It shifted that money to the instructional portion.

"The council made a management decision gratuitously," said Superintendent Michael E. Hickey.

"One of the most crucial positions is that of the director of high schools. Much of what is going to be happening in the next few years is at the high schools," including significant enrollment growth, the opening of three new high schools and the creation of the new technology magnet program.

"It was an ill-advised cut. Nevertheless, we have to compensate for it," Dr. Hickey said.

To find the money to hire a replacement for Daniel L. Jett, the departing high school director, the board reduced its budget for legal fees and eliminated the position of physical education supervisor, combining the job responsibilities with those of the director of athletics.

Also yesterday, the board approved a $45.2 million capital budget for fiscal 1996 -- about $6 million less than it had sought from the county to build new schools and renovate existing ones.

The cuts to the capital budget have forced the school system to make significant reductions to the sizes of proposed new elementary and middle schools and to scale back planned renovations for existing high schools.

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