Soothing the concerns of teachers and parents who have flooded it with complaints, the Carroll County Board of Education was expected last night to approve a $194 million budget that includes money for a 4 percent raise for all employees, new teachers to reduce class sizes and more textbooks.
Less than an hour and a half into last night's budget hearing, school board President Susan W. Krebs interrupted a long list of teachers, parents and union leaders who signed up to address the board. Krebs and her colleagues assured the more than 550 people packed into the Westminster High School auditorium that the board would support the additional money for employee raises included in the superintendent's amended budget proposal - and then some.
Krebs and board member C. Scott Stone alluded to additional items they wanted to add to interim Superintendent Charles I. Ecker's $194.3 million budget proposal. The final dollar figure was not available at press time.
Imploring the crowd not to ease up the pressure it has applied and support it has given to the fight for more school funding, Krebs asked the audience to write to the county commissioners, to Gov. Parris N. Glendening and to the General Assembly's committees studying the education funding formula.
"Us putting this out on the table is just the first step, and it's the easy step," she said.
"The superintendent's budget might bust their budget," Stone added, " ... so [the county commissioners] need to hear from each of you and your children."
The meeting followed a boisterous rally during which teachers, school support staff, parents and children wearing their school colors and union pins waved homemade signs, chanted and cheered outside the high school.
Once inside, the auditorium took on the air of a political convention with placards dotting the audience and employees from each school sitting together in large clumps.
Some looked over job applications and salary scales distributed by Howard County Education Association President Joe C. Staub, who lives in Westminster, and whose daughter attends Winfield Elementary. Many decried the degrading annual routine of attending a public hearing to plead for a raise and prove their worth.
Karen Anderson was among them. Looking over the salary scale from Howard County, the South Carroll High English teacher of seven years said she wasn't tempted to slip across the border - even though she would earn about $5,000 more a year there.
"I live here, my kids go to school here and I want to teach here," said Anderson. "Even my family is tired of the hours I put in without getting compensated for it, but I love my job."
However, she said that if the commissioners don't come through with the money approved by the school board, she might have to start looking for a job in a different field.
"They haven't been real friendly to educators," she added. "It's sad."
Since Ecker unveiled his proposed spending plan nearly seven weeks ago, school officials have been inundated with letters, e-mail and calls of concern - mostly from teachers who were upset that Ecker's proposal did not include money for a raise.
The financial slight was especially hurtful this year, they complained at public hearings around the county, because this is the second consecutive year Glendening has offered to boost teacher salaries by an extra 1 percent in all school systems that raise teacher pay by 4 percent.
Ecker had characterized his preliminary spending proposal as a "bare-bones budget," one based on the amount of money he knew the school system would receive from local, state and federal sources. But that did little to assuage the anger and concern of teachers and parents who warned school officials to expect a teacher exodus if Carroll could not raise salaries while surrounding counties debated raises of 5 percent and 6 percent for their educators.
Ecker had promised to funnel additional dollars to employee salaries if more funding became available.
But last night, with his fingers crossed and no indication that more money is headed Carroll's way, the former two-term Howard County executive known for his austere budgeting skills recommended that the school board add $6.6 million to his original $187.7 million proposal.
Board members were expected to add additional money to the budget request, which must be approved by the county commissioners and funded by tax dollars from county and state government.
Ecker and the board took heat this year for tackling the budget differently than had been done in previous years.
Although the county commissioners and budget staff praised Ecker's new tactic - aligning his budget request with the amount county officials said they could afford - critics complained that school officials would never get money they didn't request.
The superintendent said yesterday the approach was meant to demonstrate that the school system is serious about wanting to work with the county government - rather than in opposition to it.
"I know they have money problems, and there's no guarantee that this will be funded by the county or the state," Ecker said in an interview. "But I felt obligated to request a reasonable salary increase because we have to hire employees and retain the employees we have. We have to remain competitive."
Krebs said she also is frustrated by the budget.
"But we're trying to balance the needs of our students with growing class sizes, the need for materials and our desire to achieve equity among schools while remaining competitive in salaries," she said.
"And at the same time, other issues are continuously shoved to the backburner," she added, listing soaring guidance counselor-student ratios, technology and aging schools among her top concerns. "I want all of these things, too, but what is the point in grandstanding and asking for the moon and looking like the hero when I know it's not going to be approved?"