An eleventh-hour face-off between Howard County's school board and County Council produced no final budget agreement late yesterday, but school officials leaned toward funding completion of the top educational priority next year - elementary school class-size reductions.
Chairwoman Mary C. Lorsung, a west Columbia Democrat, portrayed the session in friendlier terms. "It was an invitation [to come to the meeting]. It wasn't 'come with your final, ultimate offer,' " she told board members before the talks started.
But the bottom line was clear to members of both groups - a challenge from the council for the board to dig deeper.
"It's gottabe there, out of a budget of over $300 million," said council Vice Chairman Guy J. Guzzone, a North Laurel-Savage Democrat, as four council members sat facing three school board members and schools Superintendent Michael E. Hickey in the council's crowded conference room.
Guzzone repeatedly challenged the board, noting that the council has offered to make more painful cuts to road resurfacing and contingency funds to help school officials, and insisting that the board members should do the same. The council is scheduled to cast final budget votes Friday.
"We gave up $8.5 million the [county] executive cut," Hickey replied at one point. "Everybody gave up something."
The board was to meet early today to discuss the council's requests. The goal is to see if they can shift budget expenses enough to pay for cutting class sizes from 25 to 19 children in 10 more second-grade classrooms - completing a two-year process - and have enough left over to add either more reading teachers or guidance counselors.
"I'm looking for ways to get as much as we can [for the classroom]," said Allan H. Kittleman, a western county Republican.
Council members took the unusual step Monday of postponing their final vote on the county's $754 million budget to make a last-ditch attempt at financing their top classroom goals.
They're trying to persuade the board to provide that money despite a $7.2 million gap between the board's total budget request and the money County Executive James N. Robey was willing to spend.
Although Robey proposed spending $26.5 million more than the county schools got last year, and the council added another $1.3 million, the board tentatively decided last week that it didn't have the $380,000 needed to finish cutting all first- and second-grade class sizes.
That decision surprised and frustrated council members, they have said, and Guzzone pointed to things such as office furniture, new vehicles and janitorial supplies still in the board's budget that he believes are less important.
"This [class reduction] was our top priority. I have a hard time believing that a new van is above that," he said.
The council offered to provide another $115,000 toward the class-reduction goal, and told the board to use $250,000 intended for new computers for administrators, too. That leaves $15,000 more needed for the class reduction, and about $155,000 to find either more reading teachers or guidance counselors, whichever the board decides is more important.
"It's a terrible toss-up of priorities," board Chairman Sandra H. French said during yesterday's discussion.
"Guidance counselors are not as critical" as middle school reading teachers are, said board member Jane B. Schuchardt. "We need them desperately" because many new students transfer to Howard schools in grades 3-7 and bring reading problems with them. With new state high school tests looming, it's important that these children catch up, board members said.
Hickey said he would promise to recommend enough budget changes to achieve the council's goals, but board members said they couldn't give any guarantees until they meet formally today.
"I'm asking you to take something on faith. In 15 years of going through this process, I've asked the council to take things on faith and I think we've given you an excellent school system," Hickey said.
Absent from the meeting were County Councilman C. Vernon Gray, an east Columbia Democrat, and school board members Stephen C. Bounds and Karen B. Campbell.
On another topic, the council discussed a Robey bill that would give police and firefighters on disability retirement pensions the option to eliminate an earnings cap on post-retirement jobs in return for smaller pensions - shifting from two-thirds of their former pay adjusted for inflation to 50 percent.
Several of the retirees want the cap removed without losing any of their tax-free pensions, and Kittleman said he would like to explore doing that, but in another, later bill.
"They do have some compelling stories," Kittleman said about the retirees. But JimmieSaylor, county human resources administrator, told the council that "this bill does not harm anyone."