Warmer budget talks

The Baltimore Sun

What a difference a year makes.

Schools Superintendent Kevin M. Maxwell, who proposed a $977 million operating budget for the school system last week, said he and County Executive John R. Leopold have been meeting monthly since August.

He described those interactions as "collegial." And Leopold called the proposed budget "consistent with my own budget priorities."

"I believe those conversations have led us to a place of greater understanding on all sides, and I certainly respect the job Mr. Leopold and the County Council must do in balancing the varied interests across our county," Maxwell said at Wednesday's school board meeting, during which the budget was presented.

The tones of both Maxwell and Leopold have changed markedly since last year's fight over the school system's budget, when the county government accused Maxwell of using scare tactics to manipulate the budget process.

Maxwell countered then that Leopold and the County Council were not dedicated to the school system's success, and he argued that their budget cuts would result in losses of teaching positions and bloated class sizes.

Josh Cohen, a county councilman from Annapolis, said the emergence of a better working relationship between the two, given the looming $36 million county deficit and the $2 billion state deficit, is not surprising.

"I was watching Alec Baldwin on Larry King Live ... and he made this funny joke about divorces last night, and he said the most amicable divorces are between people with no money," Cohen said.

"Looking at the budget process, there's not a lot to fight about. Everyone recognizes that all levels [of government] are facing serious budget cuts, and people aren't just blowing smoke when they say it's tough."

Maxwell's proposed 4.9 percent increase in the operating budget, which equals about $46.1 million, is the smallest budget increase in the past decade, said school officials, who said last year's proposed budget increase was 11 percent. And it contains no new positions, believed to be a first in budget history, school officials said.

"We are not immune to the downturn, and we have crafted this budget with that in mind," Maxwell told the school board during his budget presentation. Claiming various successes during his tenure, he said, "I do not intend for a minute to let tough economic times curtail that progress."

The two men have apparently found common ground in what Maxwell has presented as one of his signature achievements as superintendent: magnet programs.

Of the $46.1 million in new funding requested by Maxwell, $1.7 million will pay for the implementation of a STEM (Science Technology Engineering Mathematics) program at South River High School, the second year of the STEM program at North County High School and a performing and visual arts program at Bates Middle School.

An additional $1.8 million will be used to fund a student information system, which tracks attendance, students' grades and transcripts. School officials learned in September that the manufacturer of the system, which the school had contracted with for the past decade, was discontinuing its support programming for the system.

A majority of the $46.1 million in new funding is tied to fixed costs such as utilities, health insurance premiums, debt service and the full funding of negotiated union contracts, according to school officials.

Leopold toured North County High School with Maxwell earlier this year to see the STEM program in action.

He said he supports the STEM programs because they will help to provide the local economy with skilled workers for a projected 60,000 new jobs expected to come to the state with the nationwide military base realignment.

Maxwell, meanwhile, has pushed magnet programs as a way to ensure choices for public school students and as a tool for balancing school populations across the county.

Though Leopold cautioned that Maxwell's proposal, which avoids drastic measures such as layoffs or school closings, has "no guarantee" of passing, he said it is "consistent with my own budget priorities."

Maxwell's proposal does not include any new positions or raises for his 60-member executive and senior staff, including himself. But there are cutbacks to some programming.

For example AVID (Advancement Via Individual Determination), a program for middle school students designed to push them to take more academically challenging course work, will not expand this year to fifth grade.

The school system will, however, continue plans to implement its middle school schedule change. But it will not hire to fill 50 new positions for the revamped schedule, which will create six- and seven-period class schedules for middle school students, allowing them yearlong instruction in science and social studies. Those 50 positions will be reallocated from elsewhere in the school system.

"I appreciate the superintendent's clear-eyed understanding of the harsh fiscal realities we all face," Leopold said. "We can only spend money that we have. I share the superintendent's desire to provide excellence in the classroom. The needs are infinite, but the resources are finite."

The wild card in the budget process this year won't be known until the union that represents county teachers reaches an agreement with the school board on a contract.

Both parties are negotiating, and Maxwell's budget does not specifically set aside money for a raise. Teachers received a 5 percent annual raise in the three-year contract that expires in June.

Teacher's union president Tim Mennuti said he could not discuss contract negotiations but, while the union is aware of economic conditions, he worries that insufficient compensation could drive teachers to other jurisdictions.

"There's a lot of head-hunting going on, and consequently there are a lot of teachers looking at other schools in other counties," Mennuti said.

Maxwell, who worked previously as an administrator in Montgomery County schools and frequently points to benchmarks met equally by the two school systems, said he is determined not to allow these austere budget times to affect students' achievement.

"The fiscal circumstances in which we find ourselves will not - I repeat, will not - be used as an excuse to deter us from our mission, our journey to greatness," he said.

budget hearings

The school board must pass a version of the proposal by Feb. 20. Public hearings on the proposed operating and $214 million capital budgets are set for 7 p.m. Jan. 13 at Glen Burnie High and Jan. 15 at the department headquarters on Riva Road in Annapolis.

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