School board OKs budget of $140 million Popular programs saved; preliminary bottom line met; Plan gets standing ovation; But officials warn spending headaches may worsen in '97


School board members had feared that the inevitable leanness of the 1996-1997 budget would please no one, but the final result is a $140 million proposal that saves once-threatened popular programs such as elementary instrummental music.

And it still meets the commissioners.

The last-minute rescue came Wednesday night when the board approved the budget, based on renegotiating employee contracts to save about $2.5 million that was to have gone for the 3 percent cost-of-living raise to which all sides had agreed a year ago.

But Adult Basic Education was saved. So were preschool for disadvantaged children and programs for gifted and talented children.

The plan, which now goes to the commissioners for final $H approval, at one point prompted a standing ovation from hundreds of parents and students who attended the meeting Wednesday at the Westminster High School auditorium.

"We all felt pretty good when we left," said board member Carolyn Scott.

Still, board member C. Scott Stone warned, it is only a one-year reprieve. "County revenues are expected to be even less next year. It will be very difficult," he said.

The second largest chunk of savings that helped the board meet the commissioners' bottom line was a serendipitous one: construction delays will mean Oklahoma Road Middle School will open in January instead of September. That could save $300,000 in the coming school year. But in 1998, staffers at Oklahoma Road Middle must be hired to work full time.

The commissioners have said they will provide next school year a school budget of only the minimum required by state law, which is the same amount per student that the schools are getting this year.

Representatives of employee unions had told the board they were willing to renegotiate their salary increases to prevent severe classroom cuts, said Ralph Blevins, president of the Carroll County Education Association.

Mr. Blevins said union leaders have discussed the problem and conceded they could do nothing to avoid returning to the table. ** He said it was better to work as a united front with the school board and predicted that negotiations, which could start as early as this month, would be less antagonistic than usual.

"I do think the commissioners are the problem," Mr. Blevins said. "They set an artificial limit without worrying what it really costs to educate the children. I'm not sure there's anything else the board or anyone could have done this year to change that."

The month of discussions drew scores of parents and even students to budget hearings in unprecedented numbers, most of them supporting the elementary music program and a number of them urging more administrative cuts.

"I don't think everyone is going to sit back now and say, 'Phew! It's all done.' There still is serious work that needs to be done to help ensure that the commissioners fully understand the level of concern the community has for the public school system in Carroll County," said Alva Baker, a Westminster doctor and president of the Carroll County Coalition for the Arts.

"I'm delighted," he said of the public activism. "I think it shows the Carroll County community is concerned about the quality of education. I think we're going to see parents and other interested individuals continue to be involved."

The budget originally proposed by Superintendent Brian Lockard was about $3.4 million above the limit set by the commissioners. The suspense, until Wednesday, was over what the board would decide to trim, if anything, to meet the commissioners' bottom line.

At the start of the meeting, Dr. Lockard presented a plan to trim the money through salaries, and by cutting $224,000 from the administrative budget for a variety of costs, including recruitment, food, two staff cars, temporary workers, consultants, overtime, subscriptions and supplies.

He also recommended generating more income by charging more for outside groups to use school buildings nights and weekends. Another $200,000 could be saved by streamlining bus routes.

The board prompted him to cut further, to free money for some items originally left out of the budget, including Adult Basic Education and programs that help disadvantaged preschoolers and their parents. For that, Dr. Lockard cut another $55,000 from transportation and another $50,000 from administration -- amounts that staff had said could be part of a second round of cuts.

The staff also will divert $70,000 that will not have to be spent next year, because of the delay in opening the Oklahoma Road school.

Board members reached into their budget to trim $11,300 set aside for food and conferences to restore the guest-conductor program for school concerts.

Mrs. Scott said she received many letters, including one that she responded to yesterday.

The letter was from a Westminster man who sent her an appeal to save the Adult Basic Education program that turned his life around.

"I wrote, 'I have some good news for you,' " she said.

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