Republicans OK restoring school funds $3.46 million added; education officials are disappointed; 'It was a compromise'; Schools had wanted $9.2 million more, will meet to plan cuts


Ending weeks of contentious discussion, the Republican majority on the Howard County Council yesterday agreed to restore $3.46 million in operating funds for county schools -- a figure Democrats and school officials called disappointing.

Council members also agreed on $9.9 million in additional capital spending for schools.

The decisions came as the Republican majority on the council approved a two-percentage-point piggyback income tax cut -- from 50 percent to 48 percent of the state income tax.

The informal votes, which must be made official by the council Tuesday, came after a two-hour work session early yesterday during which council members said they support spending $500,000 for school computers and $1.5 million for upgrades at the aging Phelps Luck Elementary School in Columbia.

"I think the meeting was great, and I think the school board should be very, very happy," Charles C. Feaga, council chairman, said after the session.

Michael E. Hickey, the superintendent, said, "The capital budget is fine -- that was the least of my worries to begin with. As for the operating budget, it could have been worse but it should have been better."

Howard school officials, who initially requested $9.2 million more in operating funds than County Executive Charles I. Ecker proposed, seemed prepared last week to accept $4.7 million.

Now, they must decide how to use the $3.46 million. Hickey, members of the school board and other school officials are expected to make those decisions today during a public work session that is to begin at 8 a.m. at Department of Education headquarters in Ellicott City.

"It could last several hours," Hickey said.

Key items include sustaining funding for a pool of teachers needed to handle enrollment fluctuations and money for a series of initiatives that would address such issues as underachieving students, struggling readers and disruptive youth.

School officials also have proposed charging students $40 to participate in athletics and $20 for extracurricular activities.

"I won't recommend charging for athletic fees, but I think we've got to pass on some costs to users when we're looking at cuts of this magnitude," Hickey said.

Yesterday's meeting was unusual because it was the second work session by school officials and council members on Howard school budgets that, this year, have been more controversial than in recent memory.

At issue was how much money the council will add to Ecker's proposed $195.6 million schools operating budget. Yesterday, each member of the council proposed a different figure ranging from $5 million to $1.4 million.

"I'm just amazed we're sitting here at this table and we have five different proposals on the table," C. Vernon Gray, a Democrat from Columbia, said during the meeting.

Darrel E. Drown, a Republican from Ellicott City, said, "Are you saying we should have met without you, Vernon? Democracy is a little messy."

After a heated public hearing early this month and a work session last week, council members and school officials appeared near a compromise: adding $4.7 million for a total operating budget of about $200.3 million.

Dennis R. Schrader, a moderate Republican from Laurel who is considered the swing vote on the council, appeared willing to support the compromise figure.

Yesterday, he said he went into the work session intending to seek about $4 million. In two written proposals, he suggested $3.6 and $4.2 million -- not including $500,000 for computer upgrades that he proposed allocating through the capital budget.

Minutes later, Drown proposed restoring $3.5 million and a Republican majority -- including Schrader -- accepted it. Gray and Mary C. Lorsung, a Democrat from Columbia, declined to vote.

"I don't know why [Schrader] did that," Gray said of Schrader accepting the lower of his two options. "I think he might have seen that Charlie [Feaga] and Darrel [Drown] weren't going to side with his figure. He didn't want to appear to be siding with the Democrats."

After the meeting, Schrader said, "It was a compromise -- it was a very good compromise."

After the council's afternoon work sessions, which dealt with the entire county capital budget, the council members reduced the $3.5 million to $3.46 million, saying they were unable to find the remaining $40,000 elsewhere in the budget. Gray, who did not attend the later sessions, called it "another slap in the face to the school system."

The total schools operating budget came in at $199.1 million, a 7.9 percent increase over current spending.

The additional $3.46 million for schools will mean reductions or deletions in other areas of the county budget, including $2.7 million to help fund standard cyclical payroll needs after the turn of the century; $222,000 for emergency work such as snow removal; and $200,000 to reduce operating costs for the red-light camera program.

"I'm afraid that we probably bargained too generously, but I hope this lets the school process go forward," said Feaga after the later work session. "I hope this is also an educational process for the school board and those who campaign for school funds, to let them know that you have to take the money from somewhere."

The council also voted yesterday to delay spending about $400,000 for a new equestrian center in western Howard, deciding to shuffle those funds to the schools capital budget.

School officials initially requested nearly $34 million for school construction and renovations but Ecker's proposal fell $2.8 million short of that. In recent weeks, Ecker restored $2.3 million of that (plus $6.6 million to make up for a separate shortfall in state funding).

Also yesterday, members of the council unanimously approved returning to the long-range school capital plan to build a new high school in the southeastern part of Howard.

School officials last week asked for an additional $451,000 to fund a complete renovation and addition at Phelps Luck. Yesterday, they received that -- plus $500,000 to pay for computer upgrades requested in the operating budget. The total capital budget restoration now sits at some $9.9 million, with the total schools capital budget at $30.6 million. This represents a 8 percent increase over current spending.

Pub Date: 5/20/98

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