Schools seeking increase of 7.6%

THE BALTIMORE SUN

With the first phase of implementing full-day kindergarten representing their most significant new expense, Carroll County school officials are expected tonight to propose an operating budget of more than $259 million for the fiscal year that begins in July.

Schools Superintendent Charles I. Ecker's budget request is about $18 million - or 7.6 percent - higher than this year's operating budget.

The request includes money to implement all-day kindergarten at eight of the county's 21 elementary schools, as well as to hire more teachers and staff to accommodate growing enrollment at many schools, said Christopher Hartlove, the system's budget supervisor.

The proposed budget also seeks funding for 17 additional staff positions at Parr's Ridge Elementary in Mount Airy, which is scheduled to open this fall with about 440 children in kindergarten through second grade.

Nearly 80 percent of the district's proposed budget is allocated for instructional items such as salaries, special education, textbooks and supplies, officials said.

Full-day kindergarten "is the biggest chunk of our increase," Hartlove said yesterday. He added that the school system estimates needing $2.4 million to fund just the first phase of the initiative.

The full-day kindergarten program - scheduled to be implemented over the next three school years - is being phased in first at schools that will not require the construction of additional classrooms, Hartlove said.

Carroll school officials have been fighting the full-day kindergarten requirement - part of the $1.3 billion Thornton Commission education reforms - for two years. School officials maintain that most of the district's kindergartners succeed in half-day programs and that pre-kindergarten testing would help ensure that youngsters who need extra instruction to get them ready for first grade would be enrolled in full-day classes. Officials said they can prove, with test results, that Carroll's program works.

The state Department of Education has ordered that all public school systems provide all-day kindergarten by the 2007-2008 school year. In Carroll, that policy is expected to cost about $18 million.

While school board members have said they will again seek legislative relief from the state mandate, steps are being taken to implement all-day kindergarten because the likelihood of winning an exemption during the coming General Assembly session appears slim.

"We have to begin phasing that in because it doesn't look like the state is going to change the mandate," Ecker said.

In a school system with about 600 kindergarteners - most of whom would normally attend school for half the day - the need to accommodate all of them for the entire school day means the district needs about twice as many kindergarten teachers, Hartlove said.

School officials want to add about 144 instructional positions - including teachers, instructional assistants and resource teachers - throughout the district for fiscal 2006. More than a third of those slots are associated with the all-day kindergarten initiative.

"We need 55 additional positions just for full-day kindergarten," Hartlove said.

Although the state is providing about 40 percent of the costs for implementing full-day kindergarten through Thornton - also called the Bridge to Excellence Act - Hartlove said the school system must rely upon the county government for the other 60 percent.

Another key objective in the budget request is funding for intervention programs.

"We wanted to provide more money ... for the ESOL [English for Speakers of Other Languages] program and students who are scoring below the state average" on statewide assessments, Ecker said.

The budget request does not include salary increases for teachers and other union employees because negotiations with the district's five bargaining groups are ongoing. Ecker said he is committed to maintaining competitive salaries to attract and retain a solid teaching staff.

"As soon as all negotiations are completed, we will add that in," he said.

Ecker's proposal estimates it will cost about $1.5 million for each 1 percent increase in salary. The estimated cost of step and longevity increases - automatic raises built into salary scales - amounts to about $2.8 million for the more than 3,100 district employees represented by unions.

The superintendent said he hopes to conclude talks by early February so he can add those figures to the request before the school board votes on it later next month. The school board will then forward the budget request to county commissioners, who generally approve the county's spending plan by May.

The public hearings on the school budget request are scheduled at 7 p.m. Feb. 3 at Oklahoma Road Middle School, 6300 Oklahoma Road, Sykesville, and at 7 p.m. Feb. 17 at Westminster High School, 1225 Washington Road.

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