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Easy OK on school budget; Board approves $516 million plan in less than an hour; Members vote 5-1; Process this year 'very different,' Executive Owens says


The county school board did something yesterday no one can remember happening before -- it approved Superintendent Carol S. Parham's $516 million budget without adding a dime or bickering for hours.

In less than an hour, the budget sailed to approval. The ease of the decision came in especially stark contrast to last year's budget vote, when the board added $8.5 million to Parham's spending plan in a long and emotional meeting. The board's final $501 million budget -- sent to former County Executive John G. Gary during an election year -- sparked a feud that dominated last fall's election and changed the look of county government.

Gary, who talked tough against school officials, lost to Janet S. Owens, who promised to work with the school board.

Owens, through her spokesman, commended the board for its work. Parham was also happily surprised by the quick work the board made of the budget. It includes, as she had wanted, money for more teachers to reduce class size and to beef up middle school reading instruction.

"The process this year has been very different," she said. "This year, there have been meetings with the county executive, the County Council and even the state delegation. We all have an understanding of what we need to do."

Gary had attacked Parham as well as the board and accused them of padding expenses and fiscal irresponsibility.

With two members absent -- Thomas Florestano of Annapolis and Joseph Foster of Linthicum -- the board voted 5-1 to accept Parham's proposed budget, which now goes to Owens and then the County Council for final approval.

Owens has said that while she favors increased teacher salaries and reduced classes, her first budget will be a tough one: too many departments need too much money.

Board members said they do not expect to get the full spending increase over the current budget, so it made no sense, they reasoned, to spend hours adding money to Parham's request. Discussion of programs can wait until June when they found out exactly how much the council gives the schools.

"At the very most, we are looking at" a $20 million or $30 million increase," said board member Paul Rudolph. "I remember all too well what we went through last year. And I don't see why we have to go through it again this year."

Last year, the board cut $9 million from the budget after Gary and the council slashed it from $501 million to $454 million. The cuts were painful to parents and students who crowded board meetings to protest the loss of a gifted and talented program and bus routes.

"We should ask the County Council to fund us as much as they can and then decide what to do next," he said.

Board member Vaughn Brown agreed.

"We don't expect to get everything in the budget," he said. "What the superintendent and the staff put together is a rather dramatic and innovative package that addresses the critical needs of the county."

The lone dissenter was board member Michael McNelly from Tracy's Landing.

"When I vote 'no' on this, it's not because I don't think the school system has needs," said McNelly, who argued it would be "fiscally irresponsible" to approve the budget "without public discussion on it."

Other board members pointed out that there have been two public hearings and two public budget workshops.

"If we take this new approach to this, we have an opportunity," said board President Carlesa Finney. "Last year was a major awakening for me even as a veteran board member."

Pub Date: 2/18/99

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