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County schools budget to be presented today


Carroll schools Superintendent Charles I. Ecker is expected to present to the county school board tonight a $241 million operating budget proposal that includes new money for skyrocketing health insurance costs, more teachers to keep up with growing student enrollments and $3 million to $4 million worth of improvements.

Absent from Ecker's preliminary spending plan is any designated amount for staff raises, although the schools chief said he expects to dedicate money to salaries after five employee unions finish negotiating contracts.

"When negotiations are completed, money to fund whatever we agree on will be included," he said in an interview yesterday.

Ecker said he would like all five contracts to be finished by Feb. 19, when the school board is scheduled to vote on a budget and send it along to the county commissioners.

The superintendent gave the labor groups a similar deadline two years ago, but the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, which represents maintenance staff, custodians and bus drivers, was the only union to wrap up negotiations in time.

Because AFSCME was the only group to meet the deadline, its tentative contract agreement was the only one honored by school board members, who decided to use the system's modest revenue increase to hire new staff rather than pay for 3 percent raises contained in earlier, tentative agreements.

Three other bargaining groups agreed to annual raises of about 2 percent for two years while the food services union, whose funding is not dependent on county allocations, was not affected.

Asked yesterday whether labor groups could anticipate similar treatment if they fail to meet this year's deadline, Ecker said, "I expect all the unions to be complete this time. There's no use speculating about that because it's not going to happen."

Sharon Fischer, president of the Carroll Association of School Employees, which represents 515 secretaries, nurses and instructional assistants, said that meeting the deadline should not be a problem.

"I fully expect to be completed well before Feb. 19," Fischer said yesterday after returning from CASE's first bargaining session with school board negotiators.

Leaders with the Carroll County Education Association, whose 2,030 members include teachers, media specialists and guidance counselors, also met with board negotiators for the first time yesterday. They could not be reached yesterday.

Ecker's preliminary spending request is $16.4 million higher than this year's operating budget, although the superintendent said he expects the system to receive about $15.5 million more in the fiscal year that begins in July than it did this year from local, state and federal governments.

His spending proposal also depends on full funding of the Thornton education legislation, which appears to be in jeopardy if Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. proceeds with plans to cut the expensive reform program by taking advantage of a loophole that would cost large urban school districts millions of dollars in anticipated state assistance.

Ecker's proposal includes $4.9 million in Thornton money. "We're proceeding on the assumption we'll get full Thornton funding," he said. "It's a law and we think we're going to get it."

Asked if he has made any provisions to modify his spending plan in the event Thornton is not fully funded, Ecker said, "No, I'm optimistic."

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