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School budget moves ahead


In sharp contrast to last year's acrimony, the Howard County Council gave unanimous, tentative approval yesterday to the school budget, and is poised to approve the entire $811 million county budget submitted by County Executive James N. Robey in a final vote next week.

"I'm happy; we put a lot of work into it," Robey said after a final council budget review of schools yesterday.

The two keys to the lack of contention, all agreed, were a cooperative attitude by school Superintendent John R. O'Rourke and Robey's submission of a status quo budget request that adds little beyond five firefighters and 10 police officers halfway through the budget year.

"I think a lot of people have worked very hard for the past year," said Council Chairman Guy J. Guzzone, a North Laurel-Savage Democrat, after a light morning review of the school budget yesterday at council headquarters in Ellicott City.

School board members plan to meet tomorrow to make adjustments for $5 million that Robey sliced from their request.

Last year, Superintendent Michael E. Hickey's last after 16 years as an education advocate, featured a tempestuous budget brawl between school officials and the council as Hickey fought for restoration of some of the $8 million that Robey declined to fund from the school board request.

He got another $1.3 million from the council, whose members also fought to make sure school officials finished the planned class size reductions in primary grades.

School officials were angry at Robey, council members were fighting with each other and school board members, and a final vote had to be postponed amid frantic negotiations.

Compared with that, this year was like a cruise on Columbia's Lake Elkhorn.

"Hickey had a tendency to want to put the council on the spot," said Councilman C. Vernon Gray, an east Columbia Democrat.

Even the County Council's two Republicans had no objections or alternative budget cutting plans this year.

Robey had 'sound budget'

"The executive put together a sound budget," said Councilman Christopher J. Merdon, an Ellicott City Republican who has sometimes feuded with the Robey administration and council Democrats.

Councilman Allan H. Kittleman, a western county Republican, agreed, calling Robey's plan "reasonable."

"There's definitely nothing to cut," said Councilwoman Mary C. Lorsung, a west Columbia Democrat. "Most of the bumps were taken out of the road before it came to us. It has to have been more positive and more healthy than in past years."

Some minor questions

A few minor questions surfaced during yesterday's hourlong review, and Gray pressed for more immediate repairs to fix broken glass and mirrors at Oakland Mills High School, but no major disputes erupted.

In that spirit, Lorsung said she would not press to remove a proposed western elementary school now, but said she would do that next spring if countywide redistricting and new, firm enrollment projections were not forthcoming by then.

Amid the peaceful good feelings, Lorsung injected one tiny note of discord.

She extracted information from David S. White, school budget director, about $12,500 the school board approved this year to lease cars for the three associate superintendents who work under O'Rourke.

"All that fighting we did last year over the budget," Lorsung mused aloud.

And what about next year, after political redistricting and as statewide elections approach?

"I guess you'll have to buy a ticket for next year's show," Robey said.

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