Class size casualty of budget cuts; County Council vote to add $1.3 million falls short of schools' needs; 'We really hit them hard'; Board decides to hire reading teachers, keep some 2nd grades larger


Smaller class sizes will have to wait a year for some Howard County second-graders and frayed band uniforms will have to endure -- casualties of last-minute school board budget cuts. The County Council tentatively agreed yesterday to restore $1.3 million to the schools budget, but the school board said that was not enough.

The majority Democrats rejected a Republican suggestion to restore $1.1 million more by deferring spending on a new emergency radio system for county police and firefighters. Robey administration officials warned that the move could mean delays and higher costs for the radio project by delaying the signing of a contract with Motorola, the vendor.

"We really hit them [school officials] hard this year," said western county Republican Allan H. Kittleman. He added after the meeting, "In order to make the class-size reduction, we need to do more than we're doing."

But Council Chairman Mary C. Lorsung countered that the school board should be able to find money in its budget for the programs that the council and the board consider most important.

The school board met for an hour after the council concluded its deliberations yesterday.

"It tears me up that we can't do the whole [class-reduction] thing this year," said board member Stephen C. Bounds as the panel reviewed a five-page list of possible cuts to its $350 million budget request.

The board agreed yesterday to finish cutting class sizes from 25 to 19 children in each first-grade class and in all but about 10 second-grade classes next year. To complete the program would have required about $380,000 more, officials said, but several board members argued that adding six middle school reading teachers was more important.

"We have [middle school] students not able to pass functional reading tests. We need to provide this academic support these students need," said board Chairman Sandra H. French.

But Bounds argued that if students aren't reading at grade level by third grade, they'll only swell the number of problem readers in middle schools -- where the county is planning tougher standards.

In choosing more middle school reading teachers over reduced class size, the board ignored advice from associate schools superintendent Maurice Kalin, who warned that class-size reductions "are what we need to do most. I see that as critical to our mission."

Board members said they felt caught in a bind.

"Our county government has not funded us well enough to do all these things we feel are best for all our students," board member Karen B. Campbell said.

The frustrations have created tension among the board, County Executive James N. Robey and the County Council this year. County officials say they have been more than generous in prosperous times, while school officials complain about not getting all the money they requested. The disputes generally are over how much to increase various programs, not over reductions in programs.

Robey granted a $26.5 million increase in school spending for the budget year starting July 1, but that was $8.5 million less than the board requested.

The County Council's tentative decision yesterday to restore $1.3 million came with two council members -- Christopher J. Merdon and C. Vernon Gray -- out of town and will be formalized in a vote Monday, when the council also will decide whether a proposed golf course at West Friendship will be deferred for one year or longer.

Gary Arthur, county recreation director, said he believes the golf course will not be approved by this County Council, and he will not argue to bring it up again next year.

The council agreed to raise fees for building, grading and electrical permits to produce an additional $460,000, to lop $250,000 from the county's traffic-calming program, and to defer until next year spending $150,000 for two additional ball fields at the new Western Regional Park to provide money to buy playground equipment at older county schools.

The move will not delay construction of the fields, noted Councilman Guy J. Guzzone, a North Laurel-Savage Democrat.

Public works Director James M. Irvin said that although all $17.5 million may not be spent next year for the radio project, it must be appropriated to sign the contract with Motorola.

The council also cut $356,000 from a general contingency fund and deferred spending $105,000 to build streets for new homes in North Laurel.

At the school board meeting, the choices in budget cuts came down to items such as more guidance counselors, money to clean stage curtains at various high schools and delayed maintenance of county buildings.

The board cut $550,000 from building maintenance, leaving an increase of only $150,000 over last year's budget. But associate Superintendent Sidney L. Cousin warned, "You can't do this forever."

The greater tension will be reflected in closer scrutiny of school spending, Lorsung said.

"My view is that a 23 percent increase in school funding over two years is a significant increase that should allow Howard County schools to build an excellent school system," she said. "There is going to be more scrutiny and a call to accountability for the use of these funds."

Robey declined to criticize the council or the school board, despite his oft-stated support for cutting class sizes in early grades to promote better reading.

"It's not a problem for me, but it may be a problem for the students at those schools," he said. "I'm satisfied with what I've done." He added that he continues to believe that there is enough money to complete the full class reduction.

Bounds predicted a similar problem next year.

"We're going to need this much [money] again next year, just to get started," he said.

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