Seven Howard County schools will offer full-day kindergarten in the fall, Board of Education members decided yesterday, voting to include the program in the superintendent's proposed operating budget before adopting it as their own.
"This is a pretty significant statement about board support for all-day kindergarten," said Courtney Watson, the board chairman, who earlier described the school system's bleak financial outlook as a "crisis."
Members spent much of the meeting trimming $7.6 million from the budget, lowering it to $473.1 million. But the figure is still $15.4 million more than they are likely to get from county officials, who are being asked to fund the bulk.
County Executive James N. Robey had asked members to limit increases in county funding to 7 percent over the current year. This budget request, which will be passed on to Robey, has an 11.3 percent increase.
"We're hoping they come up with more," said Watson, who called the board's reductions a "best-faith effort."
Hope was a theme during the four-hour meeting as school system staff members repeatedly responded to board suggestions with a positive "We can make it work." Full-day kindergarten drew the first such promise.
The state requires that school systems offer all-day kindergarten by 2007.
Howard will phase in the program at other schools to meet the deadline, but some with struggling pupil populations will receive it first, at a cost of $886,000: Bryant Woods, Laurel Woods, Phelps Luck, Running Brook, Stevens Forest and Talbott Springs elementaries and Dasher Green-Owen Brown, an elementary-middle school.
Other budget additions include $37,000 added to the $213,000 set aside for the salary of a new superintendent, which could still be less than the amount budgeted; a $115,000 staff-relations position, which will require its holder to handle negotiations, background checks and discipline throughout the school system; $160,000 in high school dropout-prevention personnel; and $330,000 for the beginnings of a new financial system meant to bring the antiquated budget process into the 21st century.
"Any delay in that area is going to delay our ability to make good decisions," said board member James P. O'Donnell, who is running for re-election. "We have to bite the bullet and do that this year."
Cuts came largely from recalculating needs and expense projections. Better health insurance numbers sliced $5.9 million from the proposal of Superintendent John R. O'Rourke, who is leaving the county Feb. 29. Adjusted enrollment figures enabled the board to cut $700,000 worth of staff positions. "We ferreted that out," Watson said.
Members also voted to cut the lauded Parents as Teachers program, which uses parent volunteers to prepare children up to age 5 for school. The $300,000 program had been funded by a grant that is no longer available.
"That money could best be used in a broader program that serves a greater number of children and families," board member Patricia Gordon said.
A year ago, the program also was cut from the board's budget proposal, but rescued at the last minute by the County Council, which gives final budget approval and took money from other areas. .
A big portion of the budget request -- $26.4 million -- would be used for a negotiated 6 percent pay raise for teachers and support staff members.
"The negotiated agreement is something the board will support, not just today," but all the way through the process, Watson said. "We'll fund that agreement at the expense, if necessary, of everything else."
They have to, said board member Sandra H. French: "Our word is our word is our word, and we have to live up to that."
Robey will present his budget recommendations in April. A public hearing on the school board's portion will be held May 1 at the George Howard Building in Ellicott City.