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Baltimore County Executive Johnny Olszewski says cuts to $1.6 billion school budget will be needed

Liz Bowie
Contact ReporterThe Baltimore Sun

The morning after Baltimore County’s school board passed a $1.6 billion budget late Tuesday night, the county executive called it unrealistic given the county’s fiscal constraints and said he would be reducing it.

“I have a responsibility to craft a balanced budget for the county, and the budget being sent forward by the board is not fiscally sustainable,” Johnny Olszewski Jr. said in a statement released Wednesday.

Olszewski had warned the school board twice in recent weeks that the county couldn’t afford to give schools an 11.2 percent increase — or $91 million more — in funding. A budget reduction is needed because the county faces an $81 million shortfall for next year. The school board instead added millions more to the budget during a 3-hour debate that included numerous motions from individual board members who wanted to fund items each felt was important.

In a remarkably contentious meeting, members argued with school system staff over suggested cuts and additions. At one point, Interim Superintendent Verletta White called for the board to be respectful of her staff.

Suggested cuts have all proved unpopular. A proposal to not give employees a pay increase next school year brought protests by teachers and principals.

Several motions Tuesday night to reduce the budget failed. For instance, some school board members recommended the county get rid of Spanish language instruction in fourth and fifth grades. Board member Russell Kuehn said he didn’t believe the program was being executed properly.

“I think we have to prioritize the fact that we have failing schools and kids can’t read and we need to focus on that,” he said. “People need to speak English before they learn to speak another language.”

The board voted to retain it.

The board also debated whether to find cuts by reducing the ratio of laptops to students in the elementary grades, switching to cheaper Chromebook devices for middle school students, and eliminating a contract for another more costly device.

In the end, the board voted against moving to Chromebooks in the middle grades because of the difficulty in getting out of a lease agreement it has with another company. Administrative staff also argued that some of the curriculum used in middle schools could not be accessed on the Chromebooks.

The budget that was passed was close to the original spending plan White had introduced on Jan. 8, and includes pay increases, a longer school day and increases in staff for special education and students whose first language is not English.

The school board did agree to cut about $2.9 million from White’s requested increase for the department that oversees the curriculum. The superintendent will be able to decide what is reduced from that category.

The budget now goes to Olszewski and the county council. They can cut the spending plan or fund it in full and send it back to the school board for a final review. Olszewski has said he would like to work with the board to find savings.

“I’ve said all along that I believe there are opportunities for savings in the … budget that need not affect teacher pay,” said Olszewski, adding he will work with the system’s leadership to “identify cost savings that are in line with our fiscal realities but preserve the pay raises our educators deserve.”

The school board added millions to the budget, although the exact amount has still not been calculated. The additions include:

• $100,000 for an exploratory program for cameras on the swing arms on buses. The cameras would be used to photograph cars that illegally pass a stopped school bus.

• $34,000 to increase pay for lunch aides in elementary schools by $2 an hour.

• $1 million to offer free breakfast at 22 high-poverty schools.

• $50,000 for an external audit of the transportation department.

• $1.4 million to add eight social workers, three psychologists and five counselors, as well as eight pupil personnel workers to help increase attendance among students who are chronically absent.

• Provide money to give about 1,500 classroom assistants who work with special education students a $2 an hour raise, paid snow days and a benefit package. Those employees now earn the state minimum wage of $10.10 an hour.

Olszewski sent a warning to the school board in advance of the budget vote Tuesday night, saying he wants the members to cut funds from the technology initiative and administration.

“It is my hope that they pass a proposal that they know is affordable; a budget that takes a hard look at every dollar that BCPS spends and serves our students and teachers well while acknowledging the realities of the county’s fiscal situation,” Olszewski said in an op-ed in The Baltimore Sun on Tuesday.

He outlined places he believes the budget can be cut, including administrative expenditures, which he said have risen 53 percent in the past seven years.

He also suggested that the laptop initiative that has delivered a computer to every student could be pared back. How that might be done is unclear.

After Olszewski expressed his concern in January, White slashed $86 million from the budget, including pay increases for employees.

In the past several weeks, education advocates have showed up at school board meetings and budget hearings saying they want the board to ask the county executive and county council for what they believe schools need to deliver a good education.

The county is ranked 14th in the state for per-pupil expenditures. In Worcester County, the average expenditure per student is a state-high $17,330, and in Baltimore County the cost per student is $13,618, below the state average of $14,256 per student. Montgomery, Howard, Prince George’s, Garrett and Baltimore City all spend more.

liz.bowie@baltsun.com

twitter.com/lizbowie

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