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Unions, County Council face deadline today

A judge has reaffirmed a deadline of today for two unions and the Baltimore County government to sign a labor contract, lawyers for both sides said.

Baltimore County Circuit Judge Lawrence R. Daniels issued the order yesterday after denying the unions' request to delay the county's budget process until a deal is reached.

Union representatives and county officials said they will continue negotiations through 4:30 p.m. today with the help of a "fact-finder," a neutral authority who hears arguments on contract terms and issues nonbinding opinions.

The dispute centers on the county's proposal to require employees with less than 30 years' service to work until age 65, rather than 60, to receive full retirement benefits. Leaders of the county chapters of the Federation of Public Employees and Federation of Public Nurses, representing about 1,800 employees, have resisted the change.

"I always like to be hopeful, but the way the county has been in not moving on things, it doesn't really look like a possibility" that a deal will be reached, said Jim Miller, president of the county Federation of Public Employees.

Under county law, a deal must be signed by today for County Executive James T. Smith Jr., a second-term Democrat, to be able to present his budget to the County Council on April 16, officials said.

A spokesman for Smith said that if a deal is not signed, the union members would operate for the next year under the terms of their current contract -- denying them raises in the county's proposal. "I think as we approach 4:30, we'll have agreements with them," said Donald I. Mohler, the spokesman. "We have agreements with every other union."

Several County Council members have voiced concerns about the proposed retirement changes but said they are unsure how much influence they have. Mohler said administration officials have scheduled a meeting with the council next week to discuss the issue.


Pre-kindergarten program screenings

Baltimore County public schools this month will begin screening pre-kindergarten children for the 2007-2008 school year. Children who will be 4 years old by Sept. 1 are eligible to be screened.

Because a limited number of slots are available for the pre-kindergarten program, which is offered at about 80 schools countywide, priority is given to children who meet certain criteria, such as being from a low-income household needing special-education services or being homeless.

Children who don't meet the criteria may be enrolled in the program if space is available, said schools spokesman Brice Freeman.

The county's pre-kindergarten program provides learning that addresses children's educational, social, emotional, and physical needs. All sessions operate for 2 1/2 hours each weekday.

Parents should contact their neighborhood school for program availability, dates and procedures for screening. Parents also may call the Office of Language Arts, Pre-K-12, at 410-887-4313.

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