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Schools' poverty funds in danger

When the Anne Arundel County school board approves a final version of its proposed $665.4 million operating budget tomorrow, some principals will be looking especially closely at the fate of about $700,000 that would help high-poverty schools pay for extra staff members and supplies.

The money is part of the $5.3 million that Superintendent Eric J. Smith wants to see added to the school system's budget for the coming school year. The school board had trimmed Smith's original spending plan out of concern that the county could not afford it.

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Smith's additional spending request covers about a dozen items, including unavoidable costs, such as retirement payouts and utility bills, and optional programs, including an increase in instruction specialists for gifted pupils and "poverty grant" funds once provided by the state.

As the state has phased out its poverty-grant program, which once pumped about $3 million annually into 24 Anne Arundel elementary schools, counties have had to make up the difference.

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If Anne Arundel decides not to fund the $700,000, its program for high-poverty schools will shrink. Schools with smaller percentages of low-income pupils will no longer be eligible for funds. Those with high percentages will see small reductions, such as the loss of a staff member.

Meade Heights Elementary School Principal Barbara Church was dismayed to learn that her school, where slightly more than 22 percent of pupils are eligible for free or reduced-price meals, would no longer qualify for poverty funds.

If Meade Heights is left out, the school will have $200,000 less to spend next year - money that had paid the salaries of seven staff members, including two intervention specialists and a reading resource teacher, who worked with pupils in small groups.

"Because [pupils] ... have that extra time in small groups, I think they feel good about themselves as learners," Church said. "It's 14 more arms to give hugs and pats and attention to our children."

Smith needs the approval of the school board and the County Council to obtain the funds for high-poverty schools and the rest of the additional $5.3 million.

But county auditor Teresa Sutherland raised concerns last week about the legality of Smith's plan. She disagreed with his proposal to use $3.5 million in unallocated operating funds from the last school year. Sutherland did not have a problem with the remaining $1.8 million, which Smith found by tightening operations.

In a letter to school and county officials, Sutherland wrote that, under state law, the unused funds should have been considered a revenue source while the county was weighing the school budget this spring. That would have given the County Council a chance to use the money for a different purpose, she wrote.

Under Smith's proposal, "you kind of usurp [the council's] authority of how that money should be spent," Sutherland said in an interview.

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Neither school nor county officials apparently were aware of the law until now.

School officials said they will comply with the law the next time around. But they hope the county will let them use the unused funds in the coming budget.

"It's important we move the budget process along, or it'll result in huge problems with our operations next fall," Smith said.


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