Actions by council, executive leave school system in a precarious funding situation

The Baltimore Sun

In 10 days, our Board of Education will put the finishing touches on a process the school system administration has been undertaking for some time: making painful cuts in the fiscal year 2008 budget that will have a direct impact on students.

While County Executive John R. Leopold and others continue to imply that the county's budget provides us with funding necessary to move our school system forward, the devil is in the details. My respect for the county executive and the County Council notwithstanding, the orchestration of this spending plan puts our school system in a very precarious position.

The budget adopted by the council May 31 does provide increased funding for programs such as special education and full-day kindergarten to help us meet mandates. It does not, however, fully fund these programs, leaving the school system to pull money from other necessary initiatives to meet state and federal standards in these areas.

For instance, the money allocated to special education does not cover any additional support for elementary schools or temporary teaching assistants. And the funds set aside for full-day kindergarten don't pay for cultural arts teachers and media specialists. Failure to implement those programs is not an option, so we must pull from elsewhere.

More troubling, though, is the movement by the county executive and council to put more school money into a county contingency fund and force the school system to, as one board member put it, play a game of "Mother, May I?" to fund programs and projects.

A contingency fund controlled by the county executive's chief administrative officer has been used for two years to hold back money allocated to us to pay for the two charter school programs in operation. We have not received a penny of that money - more than $4.1 million total - despite, in good faith, making per-pupil expenditures for all charter school students.

We have been good stewards of the money allocated to us and have had a fund balance at the end of the past two fiscal years.

The council, somehow, reasoned that we didn't need the money and kept what was rightfully ours. The money saved here and there over the course of a year - often by leaving positions unfilled - and eyed for other initiatives has been snatched to pay for charter schools.

The council has created a second contingency fund for school feasibility and planning projects. This is simply an attempt by the county executive and council to exert more control over the school system's capital construction program.

It is the role of the county to fund the school system within state budget categories. It is the responsibility of the Board of Education to assess and prioritize the needs of children and to allocate specific resources accordingly.

To gain access to any of the $2.5 million in the contingency fund, our board must request the money from the council. The council must introduce the measure and hold hearings on the matter before taking a final vote. This adds two to three months to the previous process.

It also flies in the face of an agreement with the state's Interagency Committee on School Construction, which approves state funding for public school construction projects, to combine requests for feasibility and planning studies, thus showing local commitment and expediting the process.

The IAC's approach was endorsed publicly by the county executive in January, but the current budget gamesmanship flies in the face of that accord. Our students will pay the price.

How? Take West Meade and Pershing Hill elementary schools. There is money in the fiscal 2008 budget to conduct feasibility studies for these schools, which will be heavily affected by BRAC, the military base realignment and closure process. However, there is no money directly available to us for those projects to show the IAC a commitment by this county to follow through on design and construction. Without that commitment, IAC officials have told us, money is likely to flow to other jurisdictions.

So, while others bank the money, Anne Arundel is left in the cold because it prefers to play penny-ante politics at the expense of passionately pursuing a commitment to the educational facilities and programs our students urgently need.

We have invited the executive and the County Council to sit down with us again soon and look closely at the way we develop our budget. The hope is that increased communication will foster a greater sense of trust and an increased commitment to provide a funding level that will begin to make Anne Arundel County public schools the best in the state.

This budget, though, doesn't display that commitment. And the stashing of money in a permission-must-be-asked fund that invites delays does far more harm than good.

The writer is superintendent of Anne Arundel County public schools.

Next Sunday: County Executive John R. Leopold will offer his response.

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