Frustrated school board discusses fiscal fray, impact Educators list items endangered in budget


If members of the Howard County Council restore only $1.4 million of a $9.2 million reduction in the proposed schools operating budget, educators said last night, they might have to abandon training for new teachers, delay upgrading computer technology and postpone replacing textbooks.

Educators also said they would have to cancel extra reading specialists in some high schools and could lower the mandated temperature level in classrooms across the system, school officials said.

"I really feel foolish sitting up here at this point in the economic development of the county talking about the temperature in classrooms," said school board member Karen Campbell.

"If you're foolish, I'm angry," said board member Sandra French.

Educators and the school board discussed the budget situation last night during the regularly scheduled board meeting. The talk focused on scenarios for restoring proposed reductions of varying amounts in school funding -- from $1.4 million to $4.7 million.

Listening in on the sparsely attended meeting was Councilman Dennis R. Schrader, a Republican from Laurel who is considered a swing vote on the council for restoring funds.

At the meeting, Superintendent Michael E. Hickey presented four scenarios for restoring the money to the operating budget proposed by school officials and rejected by County Executive Charles I. Ecker.

Board members appeared ready to support the $4.7 million scenario -- a plan that would require reducing bus transportation, eliminating planned upgrades of old computers and delaying new media supplies for middle schools.

"These [cuts] are reasonably reflective of the kinds of action we would like to take," Stephen C. Bounds, chairman of the Howard school board, said. "It's pick-your-poison time."

A restoration of $1.4 million would eliminate expansion of the technology magnet and require high school students to pay to participate in after-school activities -- $40 for athletics and $20 for extracurricular activities, bringing in revenue of $410,000.

It also would eliminate $57,000 in upgrades for athletic equipment and eliminate $234,000 in initiatives designed to improve the county's middle schools.

Also at issue are less controversial restorations to the school capital budget.

Ecker has agreed to restore about $9 million to the capital budget but school officials are asking for $450,000 more to complete a renovation and addition to Columbia's Phelps Luck Elementary School next year -- rather than dividing the work between two years and two budgets.

"It makes sense to do it all at once," said Sydney Cousin, associate school superintendent in charge of finance and operations. "It's better for children."

This year's schools budget process has focused on how much money council members will restore to Ecker's proposed $195.6 million operating budget for schools -- a proposal that fell $9.2 million short of the funding requested by school officials.

After a heated public hearing last week and a work session Wednesday morning with the council and school officials, council members and educators appeared near a compromise: adding $4.7 million, for a total operating budget of about $200.3 million.

Negotiations on the capital budget have been dominated by the prospect of a new $30 million high school -- a project Ecker bTC removed from his proposed $27.3 million capital budget.

Council members appear willing to fund that project, beginning with $1.8 million in planning funds starting next year.

School officials had proposed a $204.8 million operating budget and a $34 million capital budget.

This month, Hickey proposed spending reductions to accommodate Ecker's budget, including requiring students to walk longer distances to bus stops and reducing the teacher pool, a fund set aside to help administrators accommodate unexpected enrollment and keep class sizes down.

That list also would eliminate about $3.8 million in new programs aimed at addressing such growing problems as aging school buildings and disruptive students. Most of those programs would be reduced or eliminated under the plan Hickey presented last night to accommodate a restoration of $1.4 million.

During earlier discussions, board members also considered eliminating music instruction and programs for gifted and talented students in first and second grades, but those items were not part of last night's discussions.

Pub Date: 5/15/98

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