Awaiting budget, predicting cuts

The Baltimore Sun

Alicia Toloczko is waiting to hear if the school system will get enough money to save her daughter's school from losing four teachers and doubling some class sizes.

Linnell Bowen, the director of the Maryland Hall for the Creative Arts, is wondering whether she'll receive enough money to continue renovating the 75-year-old building.

And Barbara Huston, president and CEO of Partners in Care in Pasadena, is hoping she'll be able to continue to pay for a case manager who can help thousands of elderly and disabled adults who call in for rides to the doctor's office or for home repairs.

The women have disparate needs and causes but are joined by the anxiety they share over the unveiling tomorrow of County Executive John R. Leopold's budget for the year beginning July 1. They don't know what to expect, but they've read and heard about the dire fiscal prospects facing the county government.

"Most nonprofits are holding their breath to see where the cuts will come from," said Huston, who was among dozens of nonprofit leaders left reeling from $2.5 million in cuts made in the current $1.4 billion operating budget.

Anne Arundel County, like other local governments around the region, is suffering from decreased tax revenues because of the real estate slump and significant cuts in state funding, including a reduction in state education aid and state tax law changes that crimp local governments' take.

"In a way, the budget's been a little easier to put together, because there's not much money to work with, [so] you can't add new programs," said John Hammond, the county's budget director.

To weather the austere fiscal climate without raising property and income taxes, Leopold reversed his long-held stand against impact fees and proposed some of the steepest tariffs in the state on local developers. He also imposed a hiring freeze to save more than $2.5 million and cut back on use of county vehicles for an additional $600,000.

But those who have followed the budget process closely believe the measures won't be nearly enough to afford some of the county's largest expenses -- namely the $72 million needed to fund negotiated agreements for teachers, administrators and school staff. Half of the county's budget goes to fund Anne Arundel County schools, which have asked for a $100 million increase.

Superintendent Kevin M. Maxwell said he was bracing for significantly less than the $100 million he hoped to receive.

"We've been led to believe to expect $20 million," Maxwell said. "It costs $51 million to fully fund the teacher contracts alone, so $20 million leaves us short on the negotiated agreement, let alone the needs we have in other areas like special education.

"We're hundreds of positions behind for custodians and secretaries and support staff in our schools," the superintendent added. "It makes it difficult to run a good system in an efficient way if you're not resourced adequately."

County Council members say they don't know the specifics of Leopold's budget but are preparing to see a lean version. The council must approve the budget by June 1.

"I don't expect there will be much, if any, frills in the budget," said Councilman Josh Cohen, an Annapolis Democrat. "It's not going to be easy to find areas to cut."

Some council members said school raises are a priority, but their actions are limited. They cannot add money to the budget, only subtract or shift money among categories.

The runup to Leopold's release of his proposed budget this spring has been marked by some of the same friction that occurred last year, with council members and county administrators sparring with school officials over the system's request for an increase in a tight budget year.

Two weeks ago, council members accused school officials of blaming the county government for the superintendent's proposal to leave 200 teaching positions unfilled. Council members complained school officials were running a "PR [public relations] scam" that caused parents to bombard county offices with letters, e-mails and phone calls of protest.

Maxwell defended his deputies' actions in notifying schools and the news media, saying they were simply trying to prepare the public for the likelihood of cuts. The school superintendent also complained of a lack of communication between the Leopold administration and his staff.

Parents like Toloczko say they feel caught in the middle of a political power struggle between the county and the school system, neither of which, she said, appears to accept the blame for the cuts that threaten to weaken schools. Parents who testified at a recent school board meeting complained that their calls to the Board of Education headquarters about the budget were referred to Leopold's office. They called Leopold, only to be bounced back to the school system.

"I just have a bitter taste in my mouth," said Toloczko, whose daughter is a first-grader at Riviera Beach Elementary. "There just seems to be a lot of blame-shifting, which makes me think no one's actually working to solve the problem. I had a back-and-forth e-mail [exchange] with Mr. Leopold, and I just felt dismissed. He basically said it's in the school district's hands. And then, I go to a school board meeting, and you have Maxwell telling us it's in the county executive's hands."

Toloczko began following the budget process this spring after she learned that Riviera Beach could lose at least four teachers under the superintendent's move to save $3 million.

She pulled her daughter out of a private school and moved her to Riviera Beach after seeing the Pasadena school had some classes with as few as 14 students. Her daughter got more individual attention and help with reading in the smaller group setting than in her previous school, Toloczko said.

But the cuts facing the school now could double some classes, something Toloczko said she worried would hamper her daughter's academic success.

"We don't know what to expect; it's a downer, actually," she said.

Anne Arundel Schools Superintendent Kevin M. Maxwell's plan to leave 200 teaching positions unfilled will help the district save $12 million. An article in the April 30 edition of the Anne Arundel section of The Sun incorrectly stated the proposed savings to the district. The Sun regrets the error.
Copyright © 2020, The Baltimore Sun, a Baltimore Sun Media Group publication | Place an Ad