Amid uncertainty over state education spending, Baltimore County schools Superintendent Joe A. Hairston proposed a $923 million operating budget last night that includes an extra $47 million in salaries and benefits for teachers and other employees.
Despite a bleak financial picture statewide, Hairston said increases in salaries, benefits and other compensation are crucial for the school system to attract and retain qualified employees.
To keep spending in line, he said, "we're putting as much as we can into schools and away from the central office."
Hairston's proposal does not specify how much of a raise any employee would receive. The school system and its five unions, the largest of which represents teachers, would negotiate the distribution of the $47 million.
Hairston presented his budget to the school board for the first time last night. His proposal represents a $50.4 million, or 5.4 percent, increase over the current operating budget.
Board members indicated strong support for the compensation increase.
In preparing his budget, Hairston assumed that the school system would receive $37 million due to it this year under the state's Thornton Plan. If the school system does not receive the full $37 million, "we will have to do what every school system in the state will have to do, which is go back to the drawing board," Hairston said.
The state adopted Thornton, which would increase spending for Maryland public schools by $1.3 billion a year by 2008, without having the money to fund it. Whether the state can meet its commitment to Thornton funding this year is expected to be a major topic in the legislative session that begins today.
Hairston said his budget includes no program cuts, though it does redistribute $14.3 million in existing revenue. It includes one new program, costing $1.6 million, that would better track students placed in county schools by the courts and other outside agencies. The budget also would add full-day kindergarten at 10 schools and expand special education inclusion programs at 16 schools.
A public hearing on the budget is scheduled for 7 p.m. Jan. 28 at Ridge Ruxton School, 6916 N. Charles St. The school board is scheduled to study the budget at a work session Feb. 3 and adopt the budget Feb. 25. It will then send the spending plan to County Executive James T. Smith Jr., who can make changes before sending it to the County Council for a final vote. The council can make cuts to the budget, but not additions.
School system employees have not received a cost-of-living increase in two years. And with increased health care costs, some are bringing home less money this year, said Cheryl Bost, president of the Teachers Association of Baltimore County, the union representing the school system's 8,000 teachers.
Last year, teachers and other employees were outraged when Smith cut a cost-of-living increase that the school board had added to Hairston's budget proposal.
Of Hairston's latest budget proposal, Bost said: "It's a start. It's not something we're going to go out and rent an airplane over. ... Now our big push will be to get the county executive to fully fund the education budget. He has to make a commitment that education is important here in Baltimore County with or without Thornton."
Renee Samuels, a spokeswoman for Smith, said yesterday that Smith had not yet seen Hairston's budget and would not comment on it until the school board submits it to him.
The $923 million operating budget would cover the school system's general expenses in the 2004-2005 school year. Money for school construction and other specialized uses comes from other funds. Hairston's total budget request is $1.06 billion.
Hairston's budget proposal was to be posted online by today at www.bcps.org.