Cool prevails at hearing on school costs


This year's amiable school budget process continued through another important step yesterday - the Howard County Council's hearing on school funding and needs.

The annual hearing, often called a "beg-a-thon," has for several years been characterized by spirited demonstrations, passionate pleas for money and long lines of parents and community members waiting to give council members what-for about potential cuts to the schools' budget.

Last year's hearing, for example, lasted more than six hours, as more than 200 people filed to the microphone to speak their minds.

This year, no more than 65 people showed up at the 9 a.m. meeting at the George Howard building in Ellicott City, and it was over at 10:45 a.m.

"The county executive stretched himself to give the Board of Education the largest percentage increase of any county in the region," said Raymond S. Wacks, the council budget director. "I think that was evident by the lack of protest."

Board members have requested about $33 million in county money to pay for new staff positions, innovative programs to revamp the county's poor-performing schools and other initiatives.

County Executive James N. Robey has said he will fund nearly $28 million.

The council has the right to restore money to the schools' budget.

In response to the $5 million shortfall, coupled with a loss of about $2 million in hoped-for state funds, Superintendent John R. O'Rourke offered board members and the council a list of cuts that he said could cover the pending deficit, and then some.

But, parents and school district employees came to the council yesterday to politely ask the council to try making up the difference.

"We regret that our new superintendent needed to prepare a prioritized list of possible cuts in the budget, and we urge you to restore as much as you possibly can," said Principal Marion Miller of Running Brook Elementary School, speaking on behalf of the Howard County Association of Elementary School Administrators. "The job of educating our students is not easy, and each cut finds its way back to the classroom and makes our job a little more difficult."

Observers have noted that this year's process has been more congenial than in years past, and many credit O'Rourke for his commitment to working cooperatively, not combatively, to fund school programs.

The County Council hearing was so agreeable that one parent's speech about high school crowding was a jocular poem she performed with her smiling son.

"I'm certainly pleased with the tone," said O'Rourke. "As I've been saying since last July 1, I believe we can deal with contentious issues without being contentious ourselves.

"It's certainly a very comforting way for me to be able to concentrate on the issues and the substance," he added, "rather than the emotions and the fears that can be a part of a budget process."

The issues that the council heard about yesterday included the condition of older schools, which often lack the programs and resources of newer schools; funding for a 12th high school to relieve crowding elsewhere; special-education woes; and the need for more guidance counselors and nurses.

No matter how substantial the projects or how friendly the process, however, budget director Wacks said there just isn't much room left in the county's budget for all the requests.

"I think [the schools] should be able to accomplish everything that they wanted to with the funds that they now have," Wacks said.

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