In a series of painful meetings, Carroll County school leaders are debating the toughest budget decisions anyone can remember: how to cut $5.3 million worth of programs children are getting now that they won't get next year.
Schools expect about $5.5 million more in the 1996-1997 budget than they have this year.
But it will cost $10.8 million more just to keep up with growth and other necessary increases such as insurance, salary and the new staff to open Oklahoma Road Middle School and deal with an expected 805 new students.
That means schools must look at existing programs to find a way to cut $5.3 million from next year's budget.
There are 105 ideas on the table, culled from meetings with more than 250 administrators, teachers, counselors and parents. School leaders are looking at those ideas in large cross-departmental meetings, defending their own programs and debating whose are more worthy.
"Anything that is admittedly good for kids, but not required, is fair game for consideration" to be cut, said Gary Dunkleberger, assistant superintendent for curriculum and instruction.
He declined to say what programs have been suggested for cuts, because it could unnecessarily alarm parents or teachers if the cut doesn't happen.
"To share those with the public would be a disservice," he said. "They're in the discussion stages. All 105 are not going to happen. We're working with staff on those ideas. The superintendent will release a proposed budget in January."
Once the budget is released, the public will have at least three meetings to speak to the school board, along with hearings before the county commissioners.
In recent years, most of the comments at the hearings have been from parents asking the board to spend more, not less, money on education. The board, however, doesn't have fiscal autonomy. The bottom line is up to the commissioners.
"I have yet to have a parent stand on my desk and beat their chest to do less for the children," Dr. Dunkleberger said.
Parent leaders have agonized over the request for ideas on what to cut, said Linda Murphy of Eldersburg, president of the Carroll County Council of PTAs.
"We were very hard-pressed to come up with what they could touch," she said. "We were saying 'don't touch don't touch don't touch, ' We asked whether we could re-evaluate the way we do things rather than get rid of things."
Ms. Murphy said that as saddened as the parents are about the likelihood of cuts, they are glad to be included in the process. She said parent leaders she has spoken to from other counties have not been included to the same extent.
In the meantime, the debate is continuing among school staff members.
"It's been very painful for people," Dr. Dunkleberger said. "It's pretty disheartening. I think the obligation is upon us to very carefully scrutinize the entire education budget and find 5 1/2 million dollars worth of ways we can bring the expenditures into line, making sure the cuts are ones with the least effect on children."
This is the time of year the school administrators prepare the budget for the next school year, 1996-1997.
Until now, the frustrations came from trying to squeeze in an improvement or two along with the increasing expense of just keeping up with an additional 800 students a year.
But forget about improvement for next year, when it will be a challenge to keep the status quo, Dr. Dunkleberger said.
"When you have one of the lowest per-pupil expenditures in the state, there's not a lot of fluff that you can go and pull 5 1/2 million dollars from," he said.
"This has the potential to significantly change what we are able to provide."
Carroll schools rank 17th of the 24 school districts in the state in spending per student -- $5,315 for 1993-1994, the last year for which statewide figures are available.
But it ranks second in the proportion of employees who are teachers and 14th in the proportion who are administrators.
Dr. Dunkleberger said cutting back on teachers is the most effective way to cut a budget as heavy on salaries as the school budget is.
But he said leaders are trying hard not to let such cuts affect class size. That leaves programs, he said.