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Balto. County schools seeking $1.9 billion budget for next year

The Baltimore Sun

Despite anticipated state funding shortfalls, the Baltimore County school system is seeking about $49 million more than this year's budget for the coming school year to help cover teacher and staff pay raises, maintain smaller kindergarten classroom sizes and expand academic initiatives.

The nearly $1.9 billion spending plan, outlined during last night's school board meeting, describes the increase as "urgently needed" for the fiscal year that begins July 1.

In light of the recent special legislative session that curtailed increases in state education funding - wiping out the $23.4 million boost that Baltimore County school officials had hoped to receive - county schools Superintendent Joe A. Hairston's spending plan calls for county leaders to help make up the difference. By comparison, state aid for the current fiscal year increased by $67.6 million, according to school system documents.

"Although we are operating under the assumption of limited revenues based on the state's decision to reduce Thornton [education] funding during the recent special session, I am advocating a budget that addresses priority needs of the school system," said Hairston, who added that the 4.3 percent increase mirrors the level of money that the county provided to the school system before the state boosted education funding.

Expanding initiatives such as Advancement Via Individual Determination, a national college-prep program, from the high school level into the middle schools is key to ensuring that students are prepared to meet these and other state standards, school officials said.

Additionally, Baltimore County schools expect a dip in state funding because of a third straight year of declining enrollment, which had fallen by nearly 1,500 students at the end of September, compared with the enrollment at the end of September 2006. The enrollment dip could result in a loss of $5.1 million in projected state funding, according to school system records, and enrollment is projected to drop by another 2,000 students during the next school year.

Meanwhile, an infusion of about $3.2 million is needed to replace decreasing state and federal grant money for special education. About $6.4 million is needed to make up for decreasing Medicaid reimbursements for services the system provides to certain special-education students. The system's third-party billing office recovered about $1 million less last year than the year before, according to school system records. In recent years, the money has been used to hire special-education teachers, psychologists, school social workers and health assistants.

Hairston's proposal includes:

About $26 million toward pay raises, increased benefits costs and teacher training.

More than $7 million to expand academic programs. For example, $540,465 is being requested to begin offering middle-schoolers access to the AVID program. Available at all county high schools, the program is aimed at students "in the middle" who, educators say, are capable of more challenging work but need more resources, such as tutoring and training in organizational skills, to reach their potential.

About $700,000 to expand staffing for the system's department of research, accountability and assessment to help educators make better use of test-related information.

Nearly $500,000 to cover costs associated with restructuring at three county schools - Woodlawn and Southwest Academy high schools and Lansdowne middle school. The schools are expected to submit restructuring proposals next month. Under the federal No Child Left Behind Act, schools that fail to reach federal standards after five consecutive years enter the restructuring planning stage.

Nearly $1 million to cover staff costs at Vincent Farm Elementary School, which is expected to open this fall in the White Marsh area.

A public hearing on Hairston's proposal is scheduled for 7 p.m. Tuesday at Ridge Ruxton School in Towson. The school board plans to hold a work session at 7 p.m. Jan. 23.

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