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Board, O'Rourke work on budget, deal with reality


The Howard County Board of Education slogged through Superintendent John R. O'Rourke's $480.7 million operating budget during a four-hour work session yesterday, quizzing staff on numbers and needs, and growing increasingly despondent as members matched fantasy figures with reality.

"[We're] getting word that it's not going to be able to be funded," said Courtney Watson, school board chairman.

County Executive James N. Robey has asked departments to submit budgets with an increase over the current county allocation from 5 percent to 7 percent. The school system's proposed budget is a 13.7 percent increase over this year's.

"Do you want to go forward with a budget that's 14 percent higher when we're being asked" to keep it at 5 percent to 7 percent? she asked. "I just want the board to think about that."

Members suggested they think of little else, bringing up possible cost cuts through raising class sizes, trimming workshop wages and exploring "pay-to-play" options for after-school sports.

And last week, Watson questioned the necessity of funding teacher raises that account for $27.6 million.

"It's sort of a big number for us to just say, 'OK, that number is justified,' " said Watson, even though a negotiated agreement with the Howard County Education Association promises the salary increase.

Members are also trying to find a way to add to the budget the first phase of all-day kindergarten, which O'Rourke said he withheld in an effort to be frugal. The state requires all school districts to offer full-day kindergarten, instead of the prevalent half-day, by 2007.

Phase One was scheduled to begin this fall at 10 needy schools, but its $3.1 million price tag turned off O'Rourke, making board members and at least one county official balk. O'Rourke was not happy about delaying all-day kindergarten, but said he saw little choice.

"It's half what the board is willing to spend to try to finish the 12th high school," he said last month, referring to the extra costs that have resulted from construction delays.

Yesterday, the superintendent urged the board to make a decision and move on.

"The sooner the kindergarten issue is resolved, the better, because it has implications for a whole host of things," O'Rourke said.

If it goes forward, the school system will have to buy portable classrooms, teachers will have to be hired and parents will have to be alerted: Kindergarten registration is to begin March 8, and families will need to make arrangements.

Board member Joshua Kaufman, along with Watson, warned the panel that it could not cut the program later if members add it now.

"If we put it in the budget and we get less money, we can't turn around and tell all these parents 'Whoops, sorry,' " he said. But O'Rourke told him he will have to say "Whoops, sorry" to someone either way.

The money will have to come from somewhere, which means some other program will fall short, O'Rourke said: "A cut is a cut is a cut."

Board member James P. O'Donnell was hesitant to start the cutting this early.

"My reaction is we go forward with what we need, that's our responsibility," he said.

The next work session is scheduled for 1 p.m. Tuesday at school board headquarters in Ellicott City. Board members will adapt and adopt O'Rourke's budget as their own Feb. 25 and submit it to the county for approval.

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