Speakers back Hairston's budget at hearing

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Parents, teachers and community activists urged Baltimore County's school board last night to submit the superintendent's proposed operating budget uncut to County Executive James T. Smith Jr.

At a public hearing on Superintendent Joe A. Hairston's $994 million budget proposal for the 2005-2006 school year, advocates for children with disabilities praised Hairston's request for more staff for a program serving disabled infants and toddlers. However, they urged the board to find money to provide better special-education services for preschoolers.

Francine K. Hahn, a lawyer for the Public Justice Center, asked the board to use money budgeted for a transitional school - which primarily serves children living in group homes and foster care - to instead provide those services to children in their neighborhood schools.

Pat Everett, a kindergarten teacher at Riderwood Elementary School, was one of several people who spoke in favor of staffing every kindergarten class with a paid aide or parent helper. Everett said not all schools are as fortunate as Riderwood to have parent volunteers.

Jan Thomas, operating budget chairwoman for the PTA Council, praised Hairston's inclusion of money for Maryland's Tomorrow, a dropout-prevention program for which a grant is expiring. But she said more attention to dropout prevention is needed, noting that the county's dropout rate has risen from 2.9 percent in 2002 to 4.4 percent in 2004.

Hairston's budget request, first presented to the school board earlier this month, is an 8 percent - or $73 million - increase over the current school year's spending.

The increase is the largest Hairston has requested in four years. Superintendents in other area school districts, including Anne Arundel and Harford counties, are asking for hefty budget increases this year to meet federal and state mandates.

Hairston's proposal includes money to expand full-day kindergarten, preschool and college-readiness programs. It contains $23 million for employee raises, mostly for the district's 8,000 teachers, plus an additional $14 million for health insurance, $10 million in step increases and $564,000 for assistant principals' salaries.

After two years with no cost-of-living increases for county employees, teachers received, on average, a 4 percent raise this school year.

The school board is scheduled to study the budget at a work session Tuesday and vote on it Feb. 22. After voting, the board sends the proposal to the county executive, who can make changes before sending it to the County Council for a final vote. The council can cut the budget but not add to it.

The operating budget does not include construction costs, which are detailed in the capital budget. Hairston's total proposed spending - operating and capital - is $1.3 billion.

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