In a decision that he said would protect Howard classrooms, county Superintendent Sydney L. Cousin announced Monday that he will furlough 77 nonschool-based administrative, management and technical staff for three days this month to save money for the top-performing school system.

Cousin informed the affected staff members Dec. 4. The unpaid furloughs will take place Dec. 29, 30, and 31.

The resulting salary reductions, which will save the county about $120,000, will be distributed evenly across remaining pay periods this fiscal year, according to the school system.

Cousin said in a statement that the school system is part of the larger Howard community and therefore "cannot expect to be untouched by current economic realities facing the county." He added that the economic downturn has had a direct impact on county revenues and that shortfalls are expected to continue through next year.

"These factors force all of us to face some harsh new realities," Cousin said in the statement. "Cutbacks and cost-saving measures are being implemented across all county agencies in order to save jobs and hopefully allow for the forward-funding of FY 2011 needs with savings from the current year's budget."

Cousin's announcement was supported by top-ranking school system officials.

"It's a sign of the times," said school board Chairman Frank Aquino. "The school system and board will continue to look for ways to ease budgetary pressures. The system has been taking steps already to limit spending."

Aquino described the furloughs as a "small step" in addressing the budgetary woes facing the school system.

"We have an interesting and difficult budget system coming up after the first of the year," Aquino said.

"As is often the case, we try to keep whatever cuts we make out of the classroom," Aquino said. "We will do the best we can going forward."

Ann DeLacy, head of the Howard County Education Association, the union that represents teachers and support employees, said she needs more time to study the long-term effects of the furloughs.

"I think it is certainly something he has to do," DeLacy said. "A lot of pressure was put on the school system because of the economic situation."

DeLacy, a member of the school system's budget review and oversight committee, said the most positive aspect of the furlough plan is that it protects the classroom.

"Certainly, we don't want to increase class sizes," DeLacy said. "I want to make sure that the folks under contract are not violated and that the classroom is protected. We just want to ensure that whatever happens doesn't impact student learning."

The county school system has initiated a number of cost-cutting measures during the current fiscal year including: cutting funds for professional meetings and conferences by 50 percent, which has resulted in a savings of $75,000; reducing contributions to the school system's Workers Compensation Fund by $800,000; deferring the purchase of 15 replacement cars, trucks and vans, which has resulted in $417,700 in savings; cutting $1 million from maintenance of buildings and grounds; and eliminating almost a dozen central office positions, which has saved $916,000.

In addition, account managers have been directed to closely review all spending, with close attention paid to areas such as travel. Teaching vacancies have been filled with long-term substitutes.

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