Even with the conservative budget proposal he released five weeks ago, interim Schools Superintendent Charles I. Ecker came up nearly $1.8 million short. The revised 2003 operating budget recommendation he is expected to present tonight to the school board would dig the Carroll County system further in the hole - by $6.7 million.
"I think it's reasonable in comparison with other counties," Ecker said of his $211 million budget request, which must win approval of the school board and county commissioners before being funded by county tax dollars. "It exceeds what the county has indicated [it can afford], but I felt it was necessary in order to have competitive salaries."
The additions include about $6.3 million for employee raises, although Ecker would not say how much of a raise that amounted to until union negotiations are complete.
Last year, hours before the final budget hearing at which the school board votes on the superintendent's budget proposal, Ecker recommended adding $6.6 million to his original spending plan to cover a 4 percent raise for all employees.
"We have to maintain a competitive salary to retain the teachers we have and to attract new teachers," Ecker said of this year's last-minute additions. "The teacher shortage we have is all the more reason to remain competitive."
The school board's final budget hearing and vote are scheduled for 7 o'clock tonight at Westminster High School.
Carroll school administrators knew this year would be tight financially. It is the second year of a two-year plan to open two high schools. Second-year costs for Eldersburg's Century High and start-up costs for Westminster's Winters Mill High account for about $4.2 million in new expenditures.
But the financial outlook is worse than expected, school officials say, complicated by a slowing economy, fallout from the terrorist attacks Sept. 11, rising costs for medical benefits and higher-than-expected raises in teachers' salaries over the past two years.
Ecker's revised spending plan for fiscal year 2003, which begins July 1, also includes an extra $387,000 for increasing transportation costs and an additional $65,000 for a systemwide testing coordinator in anticipation of state-mandated tests that will be required during the next few years.
"I want to be able to do something with the tests we give," Ecker explained, "and give teachers analyzed test data to improve instruction."