School funding rise in Arundel called likelier next year

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Anne Arundel's improved economic outlook makes an increase in school spending more likely in next year's budget, county finance chief John Hammond told the school board yesterday.

But Hammond stopped well short of saying the county would fund the $773.1 million operating budget proposed last month by Superintendent Eric J. Smith.

"There are lots and lots of needs, but we all know that given our resources, we can't meet them," Hammond said.

In addition to hearing from Hammond, the school board voted yesterday to put off plans for possible large-scale redistricting, which had drawn opposition from parents.

Hammond's boss, County Executive Janet S. Owens, has said through a spokeswoman that Smith's request for a 9.5 percent spending increase in fiscal 2006 is unrealistic. The requested increases have been closer to 6 percent in the previous three proposed school budgets.

Despite such dampening of expectations, Hammond's presentation carried an optimistic tone yesterday. He said he expects healthy revenue from income taxes and taxes on real estate transactions. He said possible state cuts are the largest uncertainty heading into the county's budget season, which will culminate in May with the passage of a fiscal 2006 spending plan.

"I think it's fair to say that for 2006, things are looking better than they were for 2005," Hammond said.

One board member asked Hammond whether he could provide a "magic number" for how much school funding the county can offer.

Hammond said that because of possible state cuts and uncertainty about the inflation rate, he could not give a specific figure yesterday. But he promised to get the board a "realistic number" before it approves a final school budget Feb. 16.

Yesterday's session was an early step in a familiar dance between county and school leaders over spending. Smith and his predecessors typically have proposed substantial budget increases in December only to have their plans whittled down by the time the County Council passes a budget six months later.

The school board threw in an unfamiliar move last year when it trimmed Smith's proposed budget before the spending plan reached Owens or the council. The county executive and council members said they were impressed with the school board's self-discipline and made no further cuts to the $669 million spending plan.

Some board members don't agree with that approach, saying they should hand Owens a complete wish list and let her and the County Council make cuts.

"Part of what I think we need to do is offer a complete picture," said board member Eugene Peterson, who voiced similar reservations last year.

"Shouldn't we lay that out and start an honest discussion in the county of where we are?"

Other board members disagreed, saying the budget process worked better than ever last year, when they made cuts before submitting a proposed budget to Owens.

You create "false hope if you send in a budget with everything without prioritizing," said board member Konrad M. Wayson.

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