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Owens excludes reading funding


In her first major public break with the school board since she came to office as a friend of the schools, County Executive Janet S. Owens presented a $858 million operating budget proposal that excludes 19 teachers meant to support an embattled program to double the time spent on reading in middle schools.

"I have not funded the requested middle school positions," Owens told a packed council chamber during her budget address yesterday. "The simple reason is that there is no money to do so. But even if monies were available, I would still express my grave concern that our partner, the Board of Education, is moving too quickly into uncharted waters."

Schools Superintendent Carol S. Parham said she "was really surprised" by Owens' position. Owens hadn't discussed her decision with the longtime superintendent, Parham said.

Both had heard from parents who passionately oppose the program because they say an added reading period means less time for courses such as art, home economics and band.

Still, Parham and other school district officials said the middle school initiative can and will move forward without those 19 reading teachers - teachers who had also been requested and rejected a year ago before the expanded reading program was designed.

"We've got a crisis in middle schools and at some point it's got to be addressed," said school board member Michael J. McNelly. "The superintendent ... has [shown] a tremendous amount of courage in her approach."

The budget picture seemed bleak all around, particularly compared with what the school board requested. The board wanted an extra $41.8 million for new teachers, teacher raises and staff development. Instead, the board got $18.5 million.

Tight times

Times are tight, Owens explained. "I gave them every penny I could," she said Monday.

The money will cover 4 percent raises for teachers ($9.8 million), more than 90 new teaching positions for special education, enrollment growth, gifted students and class size reduction ($3 million) and more.

School district officials were trying to decipher late yesterday where dollars were lost. They will have a full accounting of what was gained and lost at today's school board meeting.

On the capital side, Owens proposed a $197 million budget. Of that, the school board will get $57.8 million; they had requested $72.2 million.

Construction projects at Southern Middle, North County High and Davidsonville, Glendale and Marley elementary schools will proceed. A new Seven Oaks elementary school stays on track.

A gymnasium at Crofton Elementary will be funded. But a new Marley Middle will be postponed one year, and a renovation of Tracey's Elementary will be pushed back for two.

Hoping for 'a little more'

"I never expect the full amount," said school board President Paul G. Rudolph, "but I was hoping to get a little more."

Owens' proposal will be voted on by the County Council, which has begun its review of the budget.

Owens' predecessor, John G. Gary, had a long-running dispute with the school board over spending and accountability.

Owens, on the other hand, has pumped millions of dollars into crumbling county schools, has supported yearly salary increases for teachers, has not allowed construction where it would mean more school crowding and has made finding money for education a top priority.

Council Chairwoman Shirley Murphy is a proponent of trying something drastic to get middle school pupils up to speed in reading. The constituents she serves in the Pasadena area support the reading program, she said. She doesn't understand why some parents object to trying a new way to help pupils.

"These parents and teachers are screaming about it," she said. "I can't judge who's right. I have to leave it up to Dr. Parham and the educators to make those decisions."

Not if they're making the wrong ones, said Councilwoman Cathleen M. Vitale, who represents Severna Park and has been opposed to the school board's plans.

"The message has been very clear," she said. "We think [the implementation process is] too quick. ... We have the responsibility to take the concerns of our constituents [to the school board]."

Parents' suggestions

Terra Ziporyn Snider, a member of the Coalition for Balanced Excellence in Education, a parent group formed out of opposition to the reading initiative, said her organization has suggested alternatives: a longer school day, shorter periods, making extra reading an elective for those who need the most help.

Snider watched on cable television yesterday as Owens gave her budget address. She hopes the school board was listening, too.

"In the best of all possible worlds," said Snider, a mother of three and an author, "I hope they'd say, 'You know, we ought to rethink this.'"

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