O'Rourke gets criticism for budget plan

Howard County schools Superintendent John R. O'Rourke presented a record-breaking operating budget request last night during a board meeting that would delay his plan to begin phasing in state-mandated all-day kindergarten, causing a backlash from school board members and a county delegate.

"I'm recommending deferring the first-year phase because it's just a very tight year," said O'Rourke, who estimated it would cost $3.1 million to lengthen half-day kindergarten programs at 10 schools in August as he had promised.


"There's too much competition for the funds, and that's a new program. Overall, the budget itself is really overwhelming."

The operating budget request O'Rourke gave the board last night, which would affect funding in the fiscal year that begins in July, asks for $480.7 million - a 14 percent increase over the current operating budget of $421.3 million.


But even with the $59.4 million rise, there are no frills in the proposal. No new programs have been included, and others that were previously planned have been left out.

"It's basically a hold-the-line budget," O'Rourke said.

The bulk of the increase - $27.6 million - would pay for a negotiated 6 percent salary increase for more than 6,000 school employees.

"The superintendent is requesting that as a priority over everything else," said Courtney Watson, school board chairman. She added that the board is committed to county teachers, "however we don't know how it's all going to work out."

The rest of the increase is made up of efforts to meet the needs of enrollment growth by providing more teachers and supplies; sharp rises in employee health insurance rates; and having to fund deferrals made in previous years, such as augmenting programs for immigrant students.

"There are limits to how much we can defer and defer," O'Rourke said.

Missing from the budget were expansions in after-school and summer programs, academic interventions at all schools and facility maintenance. The board members grudgingly accepted the revelations but may elect to add those initiatives to the budget proposal.

But the suggestion to sacrifice an early start on all-day kindergarten, which the state requires to be in place by 2007, caused an uproar.


"I can go through the budget and find $2 million worth of programs that are not going to have the effect of full-day kindergarten," said Del. Neil F. Quinter, a Howard County Democrat. Quinter came to the meeting armed with data about the benefits of the program and a news release saying he "decried" O'Rourke's decision.

"I urge the board to stand up for equity and restore full-day kindergarten to the budget," he said.

Board members appeared ready to do so.

"I don't know whether or not those children in our county who really, really needed the program can afford to wait," said board member Patricia S. Gordon, who asked the superintendent to rethink his recommendation. Board members Joshua Kaufman and James P. O'Donnell echoed that request.

"I share your frustration and your agony," O'Rourke replied, saying also that there was no bigger proponent of full-day kindergarten than himself. But, he added, funding is unlikely.

O'Rourke is asking the county to provide 74 percent of his request - $353.2 million, which is $42.6 million more than County Executive James N. Robey provided for the current budget. Last month, Robey asked O'Rourke to return $3.1 million of that money because of shortfalls in county revenues.


An advisory committee of 15 people met Tuesday to begin looking for "efficiencies" in the proposal - areas where the school system might better be able to use its resources - Watson said during its inaugural gathering. The board will consider the committee's suggestions during work sessions next month and will make changes to the budget before presenting it to Robey, who cut $22 million from last year's request.

"This is the first step in a long process. This is not an end point," O'Rourke said. "In terms of dialogue and debate and argument, it's just the beginning."

The board will hold a hearing on the budget request Jan. 29 at its headquarters at a time to be announced.