Cutting school budget leaves no good choices


CARROLL PARENTS and policy makers have discovered that what might be considered a relatively easy task -- reducing the county's education budget by a mere 2 percent -- is in reality exceedingly difficult.

Even in a proposed budget of about $146 million, there is very little obvious fat that can be easily or painlessly excised if the community wants to offer its children the best education possible.

Any easy cuts that existed would have been made already and the school board would not have go through this unpleasant exercise.

Every reduction that has been proposed so far will produce an undesirable outcome. Whether it is increasing class size, eliminating elementary music instruction, forgoing negotiated pay raises for teachers, killing instructional programs for gifted children or dropping a high school bus route -- all of which have been offered as candidates for the budgetary chopping block -- the consequences will displease someone.

The fact is that educating children is an expensive, labor-intensive proposition, as a detailed and fair-minded examination of the budget reveals. Certain realities cannot be avoided.

With a staff of about 2,500 people, Carroll's education system is the county's largest employer, with a payroll of $93 million.

These are not minimum-wage workers. The majority hold college and graduate degrees and receive pay commensurate with their education and responsibilities. That may explain why 49 percent of the school budget goes to salaries.

A favorite education platitude is that more money should go to the classroom. If more money goes to the classroom, it will be spent on payroll. The money will go either to improve teachers' salaries or to hire additional instructional personnel, such as teachers' aides and remedial and master teachers.

Where else is the money to go? A classroom without a teacher is a room where little instruction or learning can take place even if it is stuffed with books, computers and multi-media equipment.

Freezing salaries has been suggested as a means to balance the budget. Such a strategy carries one big risk. Teachers and administrators are mobile. Other systems covet good teachers.

Does Carroll want to hire and train teachers only to lose them to neighboring systems that pay slightly better and do not periodically freeze salaries?

Moreover, freezing salaries may be a good quick fix, but it's a bad long-term solution. You can't expect to freeze salaries every year.

Payroll costs will also increase because the increasing number of students requires more teachers. However, the cost of serving ever-growing number of students is not a linear progression. You cannot project future total spending by multiplying past per-pupil expenditures by the number of expected students.

Unfortunately, the future spending pattern is best described as a geometric progression. When more students are added to the system, more classrooms are needed, more energy is consumed, more library books and computers must be purchased, more teachers must be hired and more administrators are needed to supervise the expanding department.

The sad fact is that even though the education system needs more money to serve the increased number of students, there aren't a lot of places to find superfluous spending.

Administrators are a favorite target for education budget hawks. There is some justification for examining administrative positions. They are not directly involved in classroom instruction and therefore considered marginal, even expendable.

If only it were so easy. An enterprise spending $146 million must pay attention to the nuts and bolts of running the department -- overseeing purchasing, school facilities and finance. It is unrealistic to expect to hire someone to do all that for an entry-level salary.

Much has been made of the fact that the school system has 110 administrators earning more than $60,000 a year, while the county government has eight people earning that much.

Two things to remember

Two points need to be emphasized. One, you get what you pay for. Carroll's schools have consistently achieved superior results. The same can't be said for a number of county government departments.

Second, administrative salaries are usually based on the number of people supervised. There are more than four times as many employees in the education system as there are in county government. Of the 110 high-paid administrators, more than a quarter are principals, who probably supervise more employees than the majority of county department heads. Moreover, the education department's budget is much larger than any other in the county government.

Cuts will be made this week. Some of the new teaching and administrative positions will not be filled. Instructional programs with small enrollments may fall by the wayside. The process will be brutal. And the worst thing about this exercise? It will have to be repeated next year.

Brian Sullam is The Sun's editorial writer in Carroll County.

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