County limits emergency aid to schools

The Baltimore Sun

Tensions between elected officials and school leaders were aggravated this week when the Anne Arundel County Council approved an $18.9 million budget transfer that fell $3.7 million short of the school system's request and leaves key objectives unfunded.

The council's 6-1 vote Monday for the transfer forces the school system to draw on its own reserve to cover cost overruns rather than look to the county government to make up the difference.

The emergency legislation backed by County Executive John R. Leopold does not include money for a human-resources computer system, administrative trainees and substitutes for assistant principals. The transfer also does not reimburse the school system $2.6 million for charter schools.

County officials said the transfer satisfies the needs of the school system, but some lawmakers disagreed and education officials renewed complaints that their budget is being micromanaged.

Councilman Jamie Benoit, a Piney Orchard Democrat, called the transfer "a concerted effort to run the school budget that is ill-planned and ill-conceived." Benoit, though, voted for the measure because he said voting against it would deprive the district of millions.

Others concurred with the county executive. Council Chairman Ronald C. Dillon Jr., a Pasadena Republican, said he doesn't want to establish a "use-it-or-lose-it mentality."

"Having said that, this isn't the school board's money and it isn't the county's money. IUt's the taxpayers' money," Dillon said, and therefore should be held in the county's reserve.

Money could be available for the school district next year, Dillon said. Given potential cuts in state aid facing the county next year, he said scaling back the request is "prudent."

"The mission has been accomplished, the children have been educated, and you have money left over. Do we want to spend that on new initiatives? I don't think so," Dillon said.

The budget transfer process is normally an innocuous procedure that allows county agencies to adjust spending to meet shortfalls.

School system spokesman Bob Mosier said the district left positions vacant after people retired over the past year to gather up nearly $3 million in its reserve funds to use toward other programs and help pay for the human resources system.

But Leopold's transfer to the system differed from the school district's request on several counts. He did not include $3 million for the HR system, the first installment toward a $4.5 million database and software program to cut checks and store personnel data.

Leopold denied the district about $2.6 million that school officials said they needed to reimburse student and staffing costs at two charter schools, and derailed the district's plans that Mosier said would pay for "programs that would move our district forward."

County budget officials, however, concluded that the school system didn't need the charter reimbursement because adequate funding exists.

The $18.9 million funding request also left out $365,000 for 11 administrative trainees that were over and above what had been requested in fiscal year 2007. It also omitted $375,000 for substitutes for assistant principals.

"We are victims of our own good financial stewardship," Mosier said. "We scrimped and saved so that we could have the money for other programs, hoping that the county would give us the money that was earmarked for charter schools."

Councilman Josh Cohen, an Annapolis Democrat who voted against the measure, said the administration should have told the school system "months ago" that it had no intention of providing a reimbursement on charter schools.

"I thought it was wrong to not fund that, because they were expecting it," he said.

County lawmakers, though, said they have gotten assurances from the Leopold administration that a funding bill would be forthcoming within 30 days to pay for the first installment of the HR system. Representatives from across county government, including the school system, the community college and the Leopold administration, are holding meetings about piggybacking onto the proposed system.

Lawmakers are optimistic that these agencies can share the system, which could result in savings to the county.

Still, school officials are worried in the meantime about the district's ability to keep track of payroll and benefits for 25,000 employees, retirees and their dependents.

"We are using a 17-year-old system right now," Mosier said. "If this system goes down, we're going to have a whole bunch of people who don't get paid."

School officials are frustrated by the decision to delay funding on the system and had hoped that the discussions about sharing the database and software with county government and Anne Arundel Community College would have occurred earlier.

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