Tough choices for schools Another tight budget pits administrators vs. classroom innovations.


SCHOOLS OFFICIALS in Howard County could not have expected a pleasant meeting with County Council members when they came together to discuss projections for the next school budget.

County Executive Charles I. Ecker warned a year ago that money would be tight for the next few years, as Howard's property tax base grows at a slower pace than during the prosperous late 1980s.

With each passing year, it becomes more apparent that the era of explosive revenue growth will not return. No expenditure tied to the county's budget can be taken for granted. Belt-tightening is here to stay.

Council Chairman Darrel Drown told school board members and Superintendent Michael Hickey last Monday that county revenue projected to rise by only about $12 million the next fiscal year over the current $336 million operating budget. Of the $12 million, about $7 million to $8 million is needed to fulfill state-required maintenance of effort, a mandate that jurisdictions keep up with its per-pupil spending amounts. At least $4 million will go toward debt on construction projects.

It wouldn't take a mathematics education in the lauded Howard schools to figure out that leaves few dollars for new spending. Such budget constraints can be frustrating for a school system eager to launch innovations, such as the technology magnet program that began this school year at River Hill and Long Reach high schools. But Dr. Hickey and his staff will have to make difficult choices. If they hope to spend money on new initiatives, they will have to identify cuts to pay for them.

Mr. Drown wants to trim the school's top administration, which he views as bloated. He sounds passionate about eliminating top-level jobs -- a passion, oddly enough, he never possessed when he was the school system's budget officer in his pre-council days. He added tension to Monday's meeting and overstepped his role by naming names of administrators he deemed dispensable.

Dr. Hickey said he needs his instructional coordinators as a buffer between himself and principals. Perhaps. But in these continually tight fiscal times, the superintendent may have to make do with fewer buffers for the sake of student programs.

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