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Marchione tries to avoid cuts in budget; Superintendent seeks $888.8 million


Anthony G. Marchione, the Baltimore County superintendent of schools, lobbied for money to buy library books, purchase computers and raise teacher and principal salaries at a cordial budget hearing before members of the County Council yesterday.

At the end of the meeting -- an annual event during which council members question education officials about school needs -- Marchione, who will retire in June, thanked elected officials for their past support.

He is hopeful that they won't subtract a significant amount of money from his last schools budget, in which he is asking $888.8 million, including federal, state and local funds.

The Office of the County Auditor has recommended that council members consider cutting about $3.3 million from the budget.

Council members are hesitant to make cuts that will affect classroom learning, they said. County Councilman Kevin B. Kamenetz, a Pikesville-Randallstown Democrat, said he would be surprised if he and his colleagues approve even 10 percent of the suggested cuts. State law prohibits them from adding money to the budget.

Council members seemed appeased by explanations they got from school administrators regarding $10.5 million requested to purchase much-needed books for middle and high school libraries. Recently, council members had threatened to deny the full amount for fear that they might misuse the funds.

Della Curtis, who coordinates the school library system, assured elected officials that the money will be used only to buy books. She told them that catalogs of books available for purchase by school librarians will be posted on the school system's library Web site. She will keep track of each school's purchases.

Also, principals will be directed not to spend the money on anything else, said Marchione. "We've never done that before," he said.

Most at risk for removal from the fiscal year 2001 budget is the driver's education program, which requires about $245,000 for salaries and supplies.

School officials argue that the program provides driver's training at reduced rates, and that fees collected from student participants cover costs. County officials disputed that testimony yesterday, adding that the focus of the school system should be on what goes on in the classroom, not the road.

Council members also asked school officials to explain the need for salary raises for teachers, principals and substitute teachers. John Smeallie, the school system's director of personnel, said a competitive job market and teacher shortage has forced school systems to pay more money to attract top-notch educators.

The budget proposal includes $18.3 million to provide teachers with at least a 5 percent pay increase; $1.1 million more for substitutes, enough to raise wages for substitutes with teaching degrees from $55 to $70 per day.

The proposal also includes $833,193 to cover an estimated 4.5 percent raise for principals.

"We're seeing more incidences of people who go to a nearby school system to make more money," said Marchione, noting that Baltimore County is outranked by at least 10 other school systems in the state with regard to principal salaries.

Council members also questioned a plan to use $9.1 million to purchase 6,590 computers and 659 printers, as well as $992,264 to pay for new graphing calculators, which students must have for mathematics courses. Each calculator costs about $100.

"Are we responding to a real need or just public pressure to put computers in every classroom?" asked Vincent J. Gardina, a Perry Hall Democrat. "We get a lot of calls from parents who think that their kids will be Einsteins if they get this exposure, but do we have any objective analysis?"

The council is scheduled to vote on the school system's operating and capital budgets at a meeting May 26.

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