The Baltimore County School Board approved a $47.1 million spending increase last night for 1996-1997 that would reduce class size slightly, boost teacher salaries and cut administrative positions.
But the proposed $622 million operating budget offers an escape hatch to county officials -- who must approve it -- by presenting the spending plan in two tiers: increases necessary to accommodate 3,000 new students and maintain existing programs, and increases that are less essential.
County officials have said that this year's economic climate can only support the first tier of requests.
The budget goes to County Executive C. A. Dutch Ruppersberger III for approval or changes, and the final version will be voted on by the County Council by June 1.
"I think the schools need everything that's there and then some," said school board Vice President Paul S. Cunningham.
"I'm personally going to push for the second level," but he added that "with all the fiscal constraints the politicians say we have I'm going to have to admit that we're not going to get much of it."
With both tiers together, the proposal represents an 8.2 percent increase over this year's budget -- the largest increase in any of the suburban Baltimore districts.
The top-priority list, totaling $598 million, represents a $23.5 million increase over the current year. It includes $8.3 million to hire new teachers to reduce class size from an average of 24.6 students to 23.9 students; 4.3 million to restructure the teaching pay scale to make the county more competitive with its neighbors; $1.1 million to begin networking classrooms with technology; and $300,000 for a retirement incentive aimed at cutting targeted administrative positions.
The priority list also includes cuts: $2.9 million in administrative positions and central office expenses and $1.2 million from magnet schools. Interim Superintendent Anthony G. Marchione has not ruled out layoffs, but said he hopes to reduce administrative positions through a limited retirement incentive.
The lower-priority list, with $25 million in requests, includes $6 million for classroom technology, $12 million for raises and benefits and $5 million to begin a teacher mentoring program in schools with a disproportionate number of inexperienced instructors.
Those items, however, may amount to little more than a wish list. County officials have said they can only afford the top priorities, which would tap $9 million in local dollars, the minimum required under a state law forcing counties to maintain per-pupil spending year to year. Supplementing county dollars this year will be about $14.5 million in state aid.
An earlier proposal had included in the priority list an additional $1.6 million to further boost the teacher pay scale, but officials subsequently discovered that they needed the money for increased health care costs.