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Budget repair is cut, paste


In the end, it seemed so simple.

After weeks of budget wrangling with the County Council, the Howard County school board approved yesterday a suggestion from Superintendent Michael E. Hickey and moved $130,000 from school transportation to classroom uses in next year's $334.4 million spending plan.

That action, together with $365,000 worth of other last-minute budget changes, solved the dispute by providing enough money to finish cutting class sizes in all first and second grades. In addition, the changes will pay for three more jobs - either middle school reading teachers or guidance counselors.

"It sounds like an easy move," said school board Chairman Sandra H. French, who, like other board members, had come prepared to scour over lists of items to find the needed money.

Assured by Hickey that the change would not mean longer bus rides for any Howard children, the board approved. The County Council is to take a final vote on the budget tomorrow.

"At best, transportation is a series of estimates," said school budget officer David S. White. School officials had added $2.4 million to that fund for next year because of higher gasoline prices, but Hickey told the board that transportation has the "flexibility" to absorb the cuts.

Council members and County Executive James N. Robey were pleased with the board's cooperation.

"Obviously, I am really pleased that we continue class-size reductions on their schedule," said council Chairman Mary C. Lorsung, a west Columbia Democrat.

"I am thrilled that working together, we were able to figure out where to get money from their budget and from our budget to get money for the classroom. It's a huge step forward for education, " said Councilman Guy J. Guzzone, a North Laurel-Savage Democrat.

Republicans Christopher J. Merdon of Ellicott City and Allan H. Kittleman of the western county also were pleased. "They made the right decision," Merdon said about the school board. But both Republicans said they still would rather take $175,000 from the $17.5 million set aside for a new emergency radio system to use for schools.

Two board members warned against council interference in the board's legal duty to make specific school policy decisions in the education budget, but French said that's not what happened.

"We have to work together and talk together for the kids," she said. The council did not intrude on the board's line-item authority, she said, but only insisted that the board complete its own program of class reductions.

Robey said he plans to meet with the school board earlier next year to prevent any similar problems.

This year he granted a record $26.5 million increase in school spending, but was criticized by board members who wanted $8.5 million more. They insisted he had agreed to provide their entire request, while he is equally adamant that he kept his promises. The County Council restored $1.3 million more, but was dismayed when the board decided last week that there wasn't enough money to complete the class-size reduction.

Instead of taking a final vote on the county's $754 million budget Monday, the council delayed, offered to cut another $115,000 and virtually insisted that the board find enough money to finish its highest priority and hire more counselors or reading teachers.

"I'm glad it's over with," Robey said.

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