Like soldiers picking their way through a minefield, Howard County's school board members must decide tomorrow on a budget path through the next fiscal year that could anger county teachers, violate County Executive James N. Robey's spending limits or cut $23 million requested for programs.
"That's where we are. We're still struggling," Courtney Watson, the school board chairman, told the County Council yesterday at a meeting in the George Howard Building in Ellicott City.
The problem is clear. Teachers are to get a 6 percent pay raise costing $26.4 million next year under their contract. Robey, through a letter from Raymond S. Wacks, the county budget director, has asked the board to limit any spending increase to 7 percent. But outgoing Superintendent John R. O'Rourke's $481 million request amounts to a 14 percent increase - not including any money for all-day kindergarten. To pay the teachers and also keep within Robey's constraints, the board must sharply cut other requests.
O'Rourke, who is to leave his county job this week after the board decided not to renew his contract, did not attend the meeting.
Council Chairman Guy Guzzone, a North Laurel-Savage Democrat, and western county Republican Allan H. Kittleman urged the board to honor the teachers' contract.
"The board feels that way, too," Watson replied, noting that "honoring the agreement means we have very significant cuts" to make in other requests.
Complicating things further, she said, several board members want to see some all-day kindergarten begin next year, which would cost several million dollars more. At the same time, state education aid to the county is about $1.2 million less than anticipated, according to school budget officer David White.
"We're going to have to cut some of our really important objectives. It's not going to be easy," said board member Patricia Gordon, though she did not say which ones.
Council members asked for more back-up detail on school spending requests for their review of the budget in May, but White said the schools do not have the staff for that, though specific questions can be answered. The councilmen get detail on all general government budget requests from the Robey administration.
"We don't know what questions to ask," during budget review, complained Councilman Christopher J. Merdon, an Ellicott City Republican.
"I feel stupid just saying I don't know where [money for schools] goes," when asked by constituents, Kittleman added.
Robey announces his capital budget about March 30 and his operating budget in mid-April. The council has until June 1 to adopt a final plan.
School board member James P. O'Donnell said he and his colleagues also want more budget detail. "We share your frustration," he said. A performance audit recommendation several years ago that the board hire an internal schools auditor has never been funded, Watson said.
The capital budget for schools is also difficult terrain, Watson told the council members.
It is not clear, for example, if the new $1-per-square-foot excise tax the local General Assembly delegation agreed to last week will provide enough money to finish the new high school and two elementary schools needed to reopen the northern and western county, which have been closed to development under the Adequate Public Facilities Ordinance (APFO).
And if one or both of those regions are not reopened to development by July, it will slow building to the point that the excise tax will not provide the revenue the county needs, Watson told the council.
Wacks has estimated that the excise tax could provide enough revenue to borrow $58 million for schools, but Guzzone was not sure if that money could all be raised in time to help fund next year's $115 million school capital budget request.
"That's the $58 million question," he said.
The high school will cost $40 million to complete in time to open in August 2005, and each elementary - one in Dayton and another in Ellicott City - will cost about $22 million. Another $10 million is needed for a new Cedar Lane school for disabled students.
As if all that were not enough, the board is to also try later tomorrow, "if we're all still alive," quipped board member Sandra H. French, to hire a consultant to help find a superintendent to replace O'Rourke.
Joshua M. Kaufman, the newest board member, said the board hopes to do that early next monthand have two or three finalists for the job by May. If the process is too rushed, however, he said the board could stick with an interim superintendent through next year under state law. Former Deputy Superintendent Sydney L. Cousin is to take over the interim job next week.
"Don't rush, because you've got a quality interim superintendent," Merdon said, referring to Cousin.
"That's been the overwhelming" sentiment expressed to the board, Watson said.