Tough choices await schools

The Baltimore Sun

Anne Arundel County schools Superintendent Kevin M. Maxwell and County Executive John R. Leopold said they will be working closely in the coming months to bridge their budgetary priorities, after the school board last week approved Maxwell's recommended $977.4 million operating budget and $213.8 million capital budget.

The budgets will be forwarded to Leopold, who has said it will be "nearly impossible" to fund them in full, citing a sharp decline in revenue and the worsening global financial crisis. Leopold will introduce his recommended county budget, which includes school funding, to the County Council in May. The Council must approve a final budget by June.

"I appreciate the open discussions we've had with the school system since the summer," Leopold said in a statement. "With this budget, the board and Dr. Maxwell are clearly seeking to do what's best for the children of Anne Arundel County. We will have to make some very hard decisions in the coming weeks and months, and fully funding this request will be nearly impossible. Dr. Maxwell and I have pledged, however, to continue this collaboration in order to craft the best budget we can."

The board gave broad support to Maxwell's recommended operating budget, approving it on an 8-to-1 vote at Wednesday's board meeting. The lone dissenting vote was board member Victor E. Berenson. The capital budget passed unanimously.

"I believe this budget request continues to move our school system forward while recognizing the tough economic climate which exists in our county, state and nation," said board president Enrique M. Melendez. "It allows us to fulfill our contractual obligations to employees and to enhance the quality of education we provide to all of our students every day."

Berenson said while the superintendent had made "considerable progress" in compiling a budget from previous administrations, "we're still not where we need to be."

Berenson said the $46.1 million funding increase in the requested operating budget this year is "a boatload of money." School officials point out it is the smallest budget increase in the past decade and would be used to fund union agreements and fixed costs such as utilities, health insurance premiums and debt service owed to the county.

Berenson also said he believes a concerted effort should be made to renegotiate the school system's union agreements in light of the dire economic situation. Maxwell has vowed to honor all negotiated agreements. The teachers' contract expires in June and negotiations have already begun. But the school system has contracts with three other unions, representing school administrators, secretaries and janitorial staff.

"My preference would be to negotiate with the unions right now," Berenson said. "I would not simply fund the last year of an already negotiated agreement."

About $1.7 million of the new funding would 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 would 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.

The capital budget contains $135 million for planning and construction projects at 17 schools, $10 million for all-day kindergarten and pre-kindergarten additions and $8 million to enclose open space classrooms.

School board member Eugene Peterson proposed an amendment to the capital budget to expedite Brock Bridge Elementary School's position on the waiting list for classroom enclosures, but it was largely panned by other board members as unfair to the other schools that are equally in need.

Administrators, parents, teachers and students at the Laurel school have mounted an aggressive campaign in recent months, showing up at nearly every school board meeting in red school T-shirts and pleading for walls in the open-space school in Peterson's district.

The school system has 34 "open space schools" and has prioritized enclosing the schools based on qualities such as infrastructure, technological readiness and capacity, said Alex L. Szachnowicz, the chief operating officer for county schools.

Peterson called the schools-sanctioned study that was used as a tool for the prioritization a "static document," and said since 2003 Brock Bridge has seen the highest percentage increase of students speaking English as a second language and the second-highest increase in students receiving free and reduced-price lunches countywide. He added that the school is also a cluster site for special education students and that it is likely to be receiving many students from the expected BRAC relocation.

"Demographics change, situations change," Peterson said.

The measure was defeated.

"I'm not saying that Brock Bridge doesn't have issues," said Maxwell, who echoed the concerns of many board members. "But these other schools have issues, too. I believe very strongly in this prioritization list that we have. I'm concerned about throwing out process to those with the squeakiest wheel or loudest voice."

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