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Panel eyes special-ed fund request; Operating budget calls for $3.3 million for new initiatives; $293 million overall; School officials also seeking state funds to reduce class size


Howard County school board members took their first detailed look at superintendent Michael E. Hickey's proposed operating budget last night, devoting nearly 90 minutes alone to funding for special education.

At last night's public work session -- one of three planned before a Feb. 23 vote -- board members also discussed funding for transportation, teacher's aides and administration costs. Hickey is seeking about $293 million in operating funds for 2000.

New special-education initiatives -- recently approved by the school board pending funding -- make up a significant portion of Hickey's proposed program improvements.

The proposal calls for $3.3 million in additional special-education funds next year, adding 32 teachers and other assistants, therapists and psychologists.

Roughly one-third of the $3.3 million would be used to give more instruction to autistic children, an idea school board members approved over the summer.

Autistic toddlers, preschoolers and kindergartners would receive more frequent and intensive services, summer programs would be expanded and teachers would get more training.

Board members also expressed cautious optimism last night about the possibility of receiving extra money for another major budget request: Cutting class sizes.

Last week, Governor Parris N. Glendening said Howard County could qualify for up to $1 million from the state to cut class sizes.

Glendening promised to put $1.7 million into this year's budget to hire more teachers for Montgomery County, a year before his proposed statewide class-size reduction would begin.

Hickey said he faxed a letter to Glendening yesterday, "indicating that we do have a plan in place and we would encourage him to go ahead and move on that initiative."

Hickey's proposed budget includes $3.5 million to reduce class sizes, with 91 new classroom teachers. First- and second-grade classes would be cut to a student-teacher ratio of 19-1 in 17 schools.

Special-education students would be included in enrollment counts that determine staffing in elementary and middle schools, requiring more teachers. Class sizes also would be cut in ninth-grade English and math classes. The superintendent also indicated that Howard County might get some federal money -- possibly up to $500,000 -- toward class-size reduction as well.

"We're hoping that we would see higher estimates from them," Hickey said. "We have some preliminary indications that it would be higher rather than lower."

Said board member Sandra H. French: "That's wonderful news, and I would love it if that happened. However, I am cautious."

Released last month, the operating budget covers school system employee salaries,transportation, supplies and other school costs.

It supplements the capital budget, which is used for construction, renovation and facility upgrades. The bulk of the operating budget -- about 75 percent -- comes from the county.

Other board work sessions are scheduled Feb. 11 and 16. After the school board approves its budget proposal later this month, it will be submitted to to County Executive James N. Robey on March 15.

Pub Date: 2/10/99

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