The Carroll County school board approved a $228 million operating budget last night that includes money for employee raises, technology upgrades for schools, more teachers to keep up with student enrollment and a new program that trains and conducts background checks on parents who volunteer in schools.
School board President Susan Holt set the tone for last night's final public hearing and voting session on the budget, asking her colleagues on the five-member panel to show restraint in adding to a spending plan that exceeds projected budget allocations from the county, state and federal governments.
"I don't mean to sound like the voice of doom," she said. "I'm just stating a reality as we know it."
She asked that before board members suggested adding money for programs or new positions, that they ask themselves two questions: "Is it likely we will receive additional funding? And if your item is added, what can be removed" from the budget?
Holt's pre-emptive admonition was a far cry from the board's budget meeting a year ago, when member C. Scott Stone joked that the panel was "on a roll" and "might as well go for it." By the time last year's meeting was over, board members had added more than $1 million in new staff and new programs, and the county number-crunchers in the room were red-faced and rolling their eyes. The school board eventually cut $5.5 million from its spending plan to bring it in line with county allocations.
If preliminary revenue projections hold up - and Superintendent Charles I. Ecker has warned that they might be too high - school board members likely will be in a similar position four months from now after the county commissioners approve a spending plan for the county.
Acting county Budget Director Ted Zaleski has warned school board members that they can expect about $5.6 million less than Ecker originally requested from county government. With the school board's additions last night - about $195,000 for new programs for disadvantaged students and $60,000 for a coordinator, supplies and background checks for the parent volunteer program - that gap is more like $5.8 million.
Despite Maryland's budget shortfall of about $1.3 billion and uncertainties of how that gap will affect counties, the operating budget request approved last night is $15.9 million more than the board asked for last year and $21.1 million more than the school system received last year from local, state and federal governments.
But that has not stopped parents and union leaders from asking school officials to beef up the spending request, from adding money for gifted and special-education programs to millions more dollars to improve the school district's rank as last among the state's 24 school systems in staff-to-student ratio and 19th in per-student spending. The budget approved last night will go to the county commissioners, who typically approve a spending plan for the county in May. The commissioners usually allocate less money than the school board requests, forcing school board members to trim their budget.