Schools hear public input on budget Scores of parents flock to sessions on fiscal proposals; Final hearing tonight; Financial troubles spur high interest in cutback plans

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Parents are going to school on the education budget, and they're not shy about speaking up in class.

They are showing up in unprecedented numbers at public hearings, the last of which is at 7 p.m. today at Westminster High School. At the first two hearings this winter, they lined up at the microphone in scores to plead, chastise or sympathize with school officials.

Although most were asking that a certain item not be cut, more parents than ever before gave alternative ideas for reducing the 1996-1997 budget proposal to suit the County Commissioners.

"This is not going to sit well with my friends in the superintendent's office," said Patricia Holbert, vice president of the PTO at Friendship Valley, as she handed officials a copy last week of her detailed plan for trimming the $3.5 million necessary to meet the commissioners' bottom line.

They shouldn't take this personally, she said, but she proposed eliminating half of the top-level central administration staff -- five positions, including the directors of curriculum, elementary education and secondary education.

"I think we've had more interest in our budget this year than I can ever recall," said William Hyde, assistant superintendent for administration. "Part of it is a product of the times and the fact we went out in such a public way to seek input."

Kathy Krumbaugh, a Spring Garden Elementary parent, said she was among the parents who met a few times in the fall and early winter to help guide the administration in making an inevitable reduction in the coming year's budget.

But Ms. Krumbaugh said she didn't get the detail in those meetings that she got when the budget was finally put together. She picked up the proposal a day before the hearing, and by that night had found more than $300,000 she said ought to be cut, including money for employee wellness programs, consultants, security guards and food at public receptions.

At tonight's hearing, parents will see what impact they have had, when Superintendent Brian Lockard amends his budget proposal to the school board. The board then will discuss the budget, and any changes they want to make, before giving the public another chance to comment or ask questions.

"It will be interesting to see what those changes are, and if any of those changes reflect anything that any other parent has said or written," Ms. Holbert said.

Salaries an issue

Dr. Lockard declined to detail his amendments to the budget, but said last week he expected one of them to affect salaries. All school employees can expect something less than the 3 percent cost-of-living increase they had negotiated with the school board for the year beginning July 1. Most employees also have increment and longevity raises negotiated.

"There's no way I can find to cut $3.5 million without going back to the table," Dr. Lockard said.

Although the board negotiates with five separate employee groups, it traditionally has given everyone, including nonunion clerical and administrative staff, the same percentage increase or decrease in salary.

Parents at the hearings have usually not targeted teacher pay, but many have honed in on the administration.

"Just like with a household budget, you set your priorities if you have a certain amount of money coming," said Ms. Holbert, who said this whole education funding crisis has prompted her to consider running for commissioner in three years. She said the only way for the schools to climb out of this budget crisis in the long term is to bring more business and industry to boost the county's tax base.

"With this particular budget, I look at the priorities as being programs for the children being the first, and next would be maintaining teacher salaries and compensation," Ms. Holbert said. "So what's left? You have to look at major cuts at the administrative level."

Painful, but healthy

Dr. Lockard said the very public budget process, though sometimes painful, is a healthy one.

"You don't ask the questions if you're not ready to hear the answers," he said. While the references to his salary and those of other administrators have sometimes been difficult, he said he knew it would be part of the job.

Ms. Holbert and Winfield parent Joe Staub are not content with only local activism. Ms. Holbert has met with state legislators and congressional staff to lobby for more state and federal money for government-mandated programs.

Mr. Staub has been watching another important bill, which could mean a loss of another $1.1 million for Carroll schools if it takes effect this year. The bill would partially repeal a "maintenance of effort" law that requires counties to give schools at least as much money per pupil as the year before. A compromise between the Maryland Association of Boards of Education and Maryland Association of Counties would mean counties could pay only 40 percent of that per-pupil cost for new students.

"I'm concerned about this legislation," Mr. Staub said. "[We need to] block this legislation."

Although Ms. Holbert said she has gotten support from people allied with the Carroll County Taxpayers Association since she proposed cutting administrators, she said she isn't convinced she shares much with that group.

Ms. Holbert went further than salaries and positions, combing out money by cutting photographic supplies from $89,993 to $40,993 and eliminating the $198,802 in longevity increases for administrators.

She would cut by more than half the $99,120 for temporary workers, and use volunteers and high-school students to fill in at the central offices.

Popular programs

One obvious reason for the public attention is that programs at risk of being cut are some of the most intensely loved, such as elementary instrumental music. That issue has brought out the most parents, students and staff.

The administration has proposed eliminating instruction in fourth and fifth grades. Dozens of students and even more parents took the microphone at the hearings to remind board members of the importance of the instruction.

"For some children, [music] is the only way they can express themselves," said Westminster ninth-grader Allen H. Cross IV.

Other students and parents offered statistics about how students who take music do better on SATs and have a higher grade-point average.

Gifted education comes in as a close second in the number of parents it brought out. For years, parents occasionally came to hearings to complain that even existing offerings for gifted children are inadequate. For one thing, the program only goes up to middle school.

Mindy Schuman, whose children played in band since elementary school, bemoaned the concern about taxes in a county that already has among the lowest in the area.

"People aren't moving to this county just for low taxes," said Ms. Schuman of Eldersburg. "People are moving to this county because Carroll County schools are among the best in the state."

If school board members don't fight for the students, she told them, "I'll fight to get rid of you."

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