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Schools curtail hiring, projects

The Baltimore Sun

Anne Arundel County school officials are downsizing school renovation projects and curtailing hiring amid a worsening economy that has produced bleak forecasts for the state and county budgets.

The county Board of Education has approved construction plans with considerable changes that would save $8 million at two of three elementary schools - a route endorsed by Superintendent Kevin M. Maxwell.

School officials have put the brakes on filling nonessential positions - not hiring in accounting, facilities and purchasing since last spring - and are pushing department heads to trim costs on office supplies, training and travel.

The county's chief financial officer said last week that Anne Arundel foresees a $21 million shortfall for 2009, citing a weak housing market and reduced sales tax revenue.

"We're taking a more conservative and prudent approach," said Alex L. Szachnowicz, the chief operating officer for county schools, while pointing to the school system's $1.5 billion maintenance backlog. "We hope they would reward us for our savings."

The potential crunch on the school system's budget comes as Maxwell, who became superintendent in 2006, is under pressure to meet difficult federal mandates under the No Child Left Behind Act. He has seen some success: Annapolis High School met federal standardized testing guidelines for the first time in six years, under a plan he spearheaded.

The board voted unanimously last week to give Maxwell a $5,000 bonus, a one-time award, in addition to his $238,703 annual salary.

Some board members took pains to emphasize their sensitivity to the looming fiscal crisis but said that Maxwell has been an asset to the 73,800-student school system and deserves to be well-compensated.

"We struggled with this decision, but not because we don't believe the superintendent was entitled to this, or more," said Michael G. Leahy, a board member. "We understand this does have a symbolic impact on people. ... The superintendent has told us with great regularity that we're on a journey from good to great, and I'm pretty hopeful we're going to get there."

School officials noted that under Maxwell's contract, he was eligible for a bonus worth up to 10 percent of his salary, and board member Eugene Peterson hinted that Maxwell might be enticed to take the helm of the Prince George's County school system, whose superintendent recently announced his intention to resign early next year. Maxwell, a veteran administrator who has worked in Prince George's and Montgomery counties, received a $6,000 bonus last year.

"I appreciate [the board's] vote of confidence in the work I'm doing," Maxwell said after the board meeting.

Asked whether he had been contacted by Prince George's officials about the superintendent position, he said, "Nobody in an official position in the county has contacted me whatsoever." He declined to comment further.

Anne Arundel County school officials also noted the bonuses or salary increases of superintendents in nearby districts. For example, John E. Deasy, the outgoing superintendent in Prince George's County, received a $16,666 bonus and a salary of $273,000 last year. Sydney L. Cousin in Howard County did not receive a bonus, but earns an annual salary of $265,000.

John B. Hammond, the Anne Arundel County budget director, said the county has been communicating with the school board and Maxwell, warning of what he said will likely be a "very difficult" budget year.

Of Maxwell's bonus, Hammond said, "You can contrast that with the actions the county executive took when he said his Cabinet would not be receiving merit increases this year."

Plans for the three construction projects approved at Wednesday's board meeting - overhauls at Belle Grove Elementary, Folger McKinsey Elementary and Point Pleasant Elementary - had each been endorsed for "modernization," a significant renovation, by a committee of teachers, parents and administrators formed to make recommendations to Maxwell.

The superintendent, however, recommended to the board that those schools undergo what the school system refers to as "revitalization," the least of three categories in the school construction system, with the strongest being "replacement."

The board agreed with Maxwell's recommendation in two instances, but voted to modernize Belle Grove, arguing need.

Thurman Reynolds, a member of the Citizen's Advisory Committee at Folger McKinsey, said that while the group initially wanted more expansive work done to the school, it has subsequently agreed with Maxwell's recommendation, calling it "prudent and appropriate."

In his proposed capital budget for fiscal year 2010, Maxwell is asking for $10.2 million for Belle Grove, $11.7 million for Folger McKinsey and $12.1 million for Point Pleasant, to fund the construction phases of the projects.

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