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Schools scale back budget wish list

The Baltimore Sun

During the winter, the Harford County school board labored long hours trying to decide on the right combination of new positions and programs to include for next year.

But now the board is in retreat mode.

After its request for a $20 million increase in the school budget for next year was cut to about $8 million by County Executive David R. Craig, the board worked last week to scale back its plan, facing the reality that many of the anticipated enhancements envisioned for 2007-2008 school year will not materialize.

The adjustments approved during a budget work session Wednesday include: holding to a 3 percent cost-of-living increase for teachers; rejecting the addition of clerical and custodial staff; forgoing programs to provide more academic help for struggling students; and keeping seven of nearly 30 additional jobs.

"We have to revise budget assumptions, reduce existing programs, reduce new initiatives and remove new positions from the cost of doing business," said James Jewell, budget director for the school system.

Though the reduction in county money caused consternation among school officials, Craig argued that, combined with an increase in state money, the school board received the overall increase it sought.

"There are no cuts," Craig said. "Schools are getting $28 million more than last year. Their percentage of the county budget is bigger" than that of any other county agency.

Originally, the board requested $41 million more in its operating budget than it got in the current year, a figure made up of state and county money. That was reduced to $28.9 million at Wednesday's session, with $20.8 million coming from the state and the rest from the county, part of an overall $403.7 million budget.

The board cut nearly $5 million from the $9 million it had proposed for salary increases. All teachers will get the cost-of-living increase, but only a limited number of step raises will be distributed, primarily to veteran instructors.

"A reduction in wages is never a good option, but there is no other place to get what we need," Jewell said.

Salary increases two years ago moved Harford teachers from near the lowest-paid among Maryland's 24 jurisdictions to about the middle.

The starting salary is $46,000 annually, but retention remains difficult, and competition for high-quality teachers is stiff, said John Jones, president of the Harford County Education Association, which represents teachers. The association is in the midst of annual contract negotiations.

"Even at 3 percent, we are treading water," Jones said. "We are competing with the metro area and southern Pennsylvania for good teachers. Let's see where this $4 million left in the budget takes us."

The effort to reduce the budget began late last month when Craig announced that the schools' increase in county money would be $8.3 million. The board went to work to scrap several items.

"The board worked hard on the priority list and why those items were needed," said Ruth R. Rich, board member. "In retrospect, we could have saved ourselves that work. We are going to realize difficulties in the future because these things are not funded."

The list included software upgrades for the substitute teacher system, additional counselors and a reorganization of the public information department, technicians and maintenance workers.

County schools have added 1 million square feet in the past eight years, but the number of custodians remains at 1998 levels. Lack of personnel forced the county to increase the operating standard from one custodian per 18,000 square feet to one per 20,000 square feet.

"We will put up with these cuts, but keeping Harford County a first-class system from top to bottom is difficult," said Mark M. Wolkow, board president. "We are growing in all kinds of ways but doing more with less."

The board preserved after-school programs at several elementaries but could not proceed with similar activities in middle schools.

It will hire four elementary "special areas" teachers but will lose more than 25 other proposed positions, many of which were intended to mentor the county's academically neediest students.

"Given that all students must excel on state tests, it is a shame that we can't afford to put interventions in place," Rich said. "If I had my way, every child would be offered intervention, whether it was gifted and talented or special needs."

The board also eliminated another assistant principal for Prospect Mill Elementary. The new hire was intended to oversee fifth-graders while they attend classes at Southampton Middle, a move to ease crowding at the elementary school, which is at 140 percent of capacity and surrounded by portable classrooms. That temporary resolution is expected to continue until a new school is built in about three years.

Thomas L. Fidler Jr., school board vice president, said the county should fund the position and begin building the elementary immediately.

The board voted unanimously on the cuts and will send the amended $404 million budget, with its $28 million increase, to the County Council for enactment.


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