County schools facing shortfall; Marchione to seek aid for $6.1 million deficit from Ruppersberger


Baltimore County public schools face a projected deficit of $6.1 million by the end of the school year, forcing the system to freeze hiring and make a series of reductions outside the classroom.

To avoid drastic cuts to schools and classrooms, Superintendent Anthony G. Marchione will seek extra money -- perhaps as much as $4 million of the unusually large shortfall -- from County Executive C. A. Dutch Ruppersberger and the County Council.

Marchione disclosed the deficit yesterday shortly after the school system's chief financial officer, John M. Markowski, resigned. School officials publicly and privately insist that Markowski's resignation was tied to personnel issues and was unrelated to the potential budget shortfall.

"The timing is really unfortunate," Marchione said, who had initially asked Markowski to stay when the news first surfaced last week that the financial officer was planning to resign.

With the schools facing a deficit of $6.1 million, Marchione said he could not delay making cuts.

"It's rare that we haven't had a budget shortfall at this time of year of $1 million, $2 million or even $3 million, but when it gets as high as $6 million, it becomes a real concern," Marchione said.

The school system's operating budget for this year is about $645 million. With more than 80 percent of the budget tied up in salaries and benefits for teachers and other employees, school officials say little room is left for cuts.

About $4.5 million of the shortfall is tied to personnel, Marchione said, including delays in job reductions and incorrect assumptions about how much would be saved when new people were hired to replace retirees.

The cost of placing special education students in private programs exceeded by $834,000 the approximately $13 million set aside for that.

Other factors include higher-than-expected expenses to convert computer software and greater costs for student transportation.

The $6.1 million shortfall is projected despite a hiring freeze, already in effect, for all but the most critical positions. Marchione said that such a hiring freeze is common at midyear.

Cuts will include reducing the use of substitute teachers by $300,000, mostly by not pulling teachers out of classrooms for training. The system will defer some staff development activities, travel and conference attendance, saving $226,000.

The purchase of about $400,000 worth of nonclassroom equipment -- such as furniture or computers for administrative offices -- will be delayed, Marchione said.

School officials have identified $1.4 million in savings, leaving a difference of about $4.7 million, Marchione said.

Marchione said officials will continue to search for other cuts, but he vowed that "we're not going to impact the classroom."

During the school system's last budget shortfall of about $13 million in 1994-1995, budget officials took back 15 percent of the money given to schools for textbooks and supplies, Marchione said.

"The schools will have their local budgets, and every classroom will have a teacher," Marchione said. "That will not change."

Late yesterday, Ruppersberger and Council Chairman Kevin B. Kamenetz said they would support giving schools the extra money.

"We're never happy with a deficit, but we're not going to take it out on the children and the teachers," Ruppersberger said. "It's not their fault."

While the council will likely give the schools extra money, Kamenetz said "our bigger concern is what are the reasons for this. We're going to get the chance to ask some tough questions."

County officials said their support comes in part because of the trusting relationships they've built with school officials, including Markowski. The financial officer has earned widespread praise from parents, principals, board members and others for his honesty and efforts to make the school system's finances more understandable.

Markowski initially told his staff that he was resigning last Friday. He has refused to discuss why, but school system sources say it was related to Marchione's decision to force the resignation of Markowski's hand-picked deputy chief financial officer.

Markowski spent the last five days reconsidering his decision at the request of Marchione. But following a meeting yesterday, they said they could not work out their differences.

"I regret that we weren't able to work this out," Markowski said. "My own sense is that there are no winners. I know it was a difficult decision for him as well as for me. We both need to move on."

Pub Date: 1/14/99

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