Schools' budget is focused on the basics

The Baltimore Sun

The operating budget presented last week by school Superintendent Sydney L. Cousin against a bleak economic landscape is more about hanging in than forging ahead.

The $658.9 million spending plan, which Cousin said calls for the smallest increase in his more than 20 years with the school system, seeks money for matters as basic as accommodating growing enrollment and maintaining gains in closing the achievement gap.

Proposed cuts come in the form of getting rid of some vacant positions, putting off replacement of vehicles and nipping energy costs.

"I'm trying to protect the classroom," Cousin said.

Cousin presented his request, which he called "responsive, responsible and fiscally prudent," to the school board Tuesday. The proposal represents an increase of $1.9 million - or 0.3 percent - over the $657 million budget for the current year, and is about $4 million less than Cousin requested originally.

"[The plan] recognizes the financial responsibilities of today and it positions the school system for the uncertain financial future," Cousin said last week.

The modest increase is needed so the school system can keep pace with the growth in student enrollment, Cousin said. This school year, enrollment is 48,918 students, up from 48,571 last year.

The proposal does not include money for possible increases in employee salaries, which are being negotiated with the system's four unions. Any money for raises would be added by the board before it passes the budget along to County Executive Ken Ulman in late February. Cousin declined to discuss projected costs of employee salaries because negotiations are continuing.

The superintendent's budget includes funding for 44 new teaching positions; 14 new positions in the English for Speakers of Other Languages program to address the system's growing population of foreign-born students; and additional classes for students preparing to retake the state High School Assessments.

"We want to eliminate the achievement gap," Cousin said.

The proposal calls for the elimination of 10 administrative positions that are vacant but already have money budgeted for them. The cuts will save the school system $978,000, Cousin said.

Other cost-cutting measures include deferring the replacement of cars, trucks and vans. Contributions to the Worker's Compensation Fund have been reduced by $800,000. And all schools and offices will be closed during winter break to save $100,000 in energy costs.

Other school officials reacted positively to the superintendent's proposal. School board chairman Frank Aquino said he was glad to see Cousin's attempt to protect classroom funding.

"The bottom line is that you don't do anything that will hamper the strides that we have taken in the classroom," Aquino said. "Performance is up. You don't want to do anything that will force you to cut back. The key is to make sure that you keep the cuts outside of the classroom."

Ann DeLacy, head of the Howard County Education Association, said she spoke favorably of the spending proposal.

"There were no cuts for teaching and learning positions," said DeLacy, whose organization is in contract negotiations with the school system. "The cuts were not draconian. It's really not a bad budget. [Cousin] wants to protect the classroom, and those are the things that are extremely important to us - class size and staffing."

The board will now hold a series of public meetings and will vote on the plan Feb. 24. Then, the operating and capital budgets will go to Ulman, who can make cuts. The County Council gets the final say, and members can restore funding removed by the executive if they find a way to pay for it.

the schedule

Here are key dates in the process to deliberate over the proposed operating budget for county schools for next fiscal year:

* School board public hearing: Feb. 3

* Board work sessions: Feb. 5, 10, 17, 19

* Board budget request adopted: Feb. 24

* County executive presents budget: April 20

* County Council's public hearing on school budget: May 2

* Council's public work sessions on budget: May 8, 18

* Council approval: May 20

* Board public work session on changes to budget: May 21

* Board adopts final budget: June 1

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