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School survey backs board

The Baltimore Sun

Most residents support a new student fee for participation in extracurricular sports and clubs, but strongly oppose leaving 50 teaching positions empty to help balance an $871 million budget that the school board plans to approve today, according to an online survey conducted by Anne Arundel County public schools.

The results of the unscientific, informal poll, which will be released at today's Board of Education meeting, also show that 55 percent of the roughly 2,000 responses support a property tax increase that would specifically fund schools, and 50 percent back an income tax rise that would do the same.

The weeklong survey posted on the school system's Web site was designed to garner public input about the cuts school board members should consider to make ends meet at the close of an austere budget season.

The proposals are emotionally charged issues that have been raised by school officials whenever there's a budget crunch: increasing walking distances, adjusting thermostats to control utility costs and raising ticket prices for sporting events.

Bob Mosier, a county schools spokesman, said most results "weren't surprising." Many responses supported cost-cutting measures like reducing conference travel, reimbursements for teacher supplies, stipends for school office supplies and raising fees to games and outdoor education centers.

About 56 percent of responses backed the move to increase walking distances to schools and reduce the number of school bus stops.

"The tax increase question is really what was interesting. It was reassuring to us," Mosier said. "The superintendent has been clear that the discussion about funding on the school system should be based on student need, not necessarily on politics. And I think these responses bear out that the community wants a high quality school system."

With barely 2,000 responses, the survey does not reflect a substantial cross-section of the more than 40,000 families who send their children to public schools, nor the district's roughly 25,000 employees, retirees and their dependents. Mosier said he could not say how many of the responses came from school district employees, but that 60 of the responses apparently came from students.

Bob Leib, a former chief of staff for county schools who serves in County Executive John R. Leopold's cabinet as an education consultant, said the results should be viewed in context.

"I've heard it described in circles as the Washington Monument defense," he said. "You put things out there that are visible to drum up support."

The school system had sought a 17 percent - or $133 million - increase from the previous year's funding but received an 8 percent boost instead. County officials have criticized the district for bloated administrative costs and said the district had not worked hard enough to pare down costs in the face of a tight budget season.

Both sides have waged a public relations campaign, including dueling columns in local newspapers to garner support for what school officials decry is a historic underfunding of schools.

At various times, school system officials have said the lack of funding will translate into cramped school buildings with persistent maintenance problems and troubled schools that barely meet federal and state reading and math standards by a slim margin.

Informal school survey

Anne Arundel County residents are willing to make concessions in public education to help save money - but only to a certain extent, according to the results of the school system's informal online survey. Here are responses from selected questions about cost-saving measures:

79 percent "strongly agree" or "agree" with raising the gate fees at sporting events from $4 to $5.

Nearly 62 percent "strongly agree" or "agree" with imposing a student activity fee of $35 to high schoolers and $25 to younger students.

72 percent "strongly agree" or "agree" with turning building thermostats up in the summer and down in the winter.

88 percent "strongly disagree" or "disagree" with leaving teacher positions vacant and increasing class sizes.

55 percent "strongly agree" or "agree" that they would support a property tax increase dedicated to school funding.

50 percent "strongly agree" or "agree" that they would support an income tax increase dedicated to school funding.

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