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More school funds sought


More than 100 people gathered at a Howard County Council hearing in Ellicott City yesterday morning to urge members to spend more money on education.

"On this beautiful May day, we'd all like to be outside, but this is such an important issue, we chose to be [here instead]," said Lucinda Peters, PTA president at Glenwood's Bushy Park Elementary School.

The Howard school board asked for $473.1 million in operating funds for the fiscal year that begins in July - $345.6 million of which board members hoped the county would provide. But the budget that County Executive James N. Robey proposed was $11 million short.

And although Robey's offering was still $24 million more than the current allocation of county funds, "it fails to meet some pressing education needs," said interim schools Superintendent Sydney L. Cousin. The amount won't cover a 6 percent salary increase, which will cost the school system about $27 million.

This is a "maintenance budget," said Joe Staub, president of the Howard County Education Association. "It contains only one new program."

One of the school board's top priorities in its budget request was phasing all-day kindergarten into the school system in the fall at the seven elementary schools with the highest percentages of low-income students - the new program to which Staub referred.

"It is a critical component of reaching the goal of closing the achievement gap in Howard County," said school board chairman Courtney Watson.

The fiscal situation in the county is not the only one of concern to the school system. State funds will also come in about $1 million shy of the $122.5 million the Board of Education expected, leading Cousin to outline a list of 77 possible cuts last week that would trim more than $12 million from the board's original request.

"While we recognize the fiscal realities and will make the reductions that are necessary, we must advise you that the reductions are not painless," Watson said. Included in the list of cuts were new textbooks, money for professional development, new staff and instruction materials.

About $3 million in cuts came from creative shifting by Cousin, who suggested moving computer equipment and some building repairs from the operating budget request into the capital budget proposal, bringing the $115 million capital request to $118 million.

But Robey has said he will provide only $94.7 million in capital funding, which means that unless the state makes up the difference - an unlikely scenario - at least one planned elementary school will have to be deferred, along with about $3.3 million in renovations.

Only one person went against the crowd of people wearing stickers that read "Quality pays! Support funding for Howard County Schools." That was Jim Oglethorpe of the Howard County Taxpayers Association.

"Do not restore that $11 million," he told the five council members, adding later that the world would not "come to an end if our school system turned out to be number two" because it had cut costs.

Among those who asked the council for more money were special-education activists concerned about the hard hit that the program would take under Cousin's suggested cut list; Bushy Park's Peters, who asked the council to support a $1.4 million study to replace the overburdened school, where classes are held in closets because there is so little space; and Hollifield Station Elementary parents who want more staff members.

A Swansfield Elementary parent, Kathy Eckley, went to ask for a wood floor for the school's gym, which is now carpet that she says is covered with "sweat, blood, urine and vomit." The gym also has peeling paint on the walls, visible mold and a ventilation system in need of cleaning.

We're asking for "minimal standards of maintenance," said Eckley, who has two boys at Swansfield.

The County Council will hold a work session on the education budget at 9 a.m. Thursday at the George Howard Building in Ellicott City.

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