Dance's budget proposal includes cuts to school budgets, raises for employees

Baltimore County school Superintendent Dallas Dance rolled out Tuesday a $1.4 billion proposed budget for next year that would shave principals' budgets, increase seats for pre-kindergartners and add money for employee raises.

The budget, which must be approved by the school board before it goes to County Executive Kevin Kamenetz, is a $72.4 million, or 5 percent increase, over this year's.

By reducing costs in some areas, Dance would be able to pay for his top priorities, including new programs to close the achievement gap and new technology in schools.

Next year the school system will put tablets or laptops in 10 elementary schools on a pilot basis as well as wireless Internet into all schools that don't have it.

Because the school system is expected to greet 1,300 additional students next fall, Dance said he must add 60 new teaching positions.

In addition, Dance would provide $6.8 million to close the achievement gap. He wants the system to invest in more pre-kindergarten seats for disadvantaged students and will do that gradually, adding 300 seats a year over the next several years. Currently, he said, the county has only 3,200 pre-kindergartners in a system with 104,000 students. Pre-kindergarten has become a priority of federal and state governments as some research suggests that investment in early childhood education increases the chances a student won't fall behind later.

The budget proposal would also cut some programs to pay for the new spending, including decreasing the per-pupil allotment that principals get for their schools. For example, at the elementary schools, the budget would decrease from $142 per pupil to $123 per pupil. Dance said principals will no longer be required to pay for certain expenses related to technology.

Also, the system would close the Bridge Center, which allows a small number of students who aren't yet ready to go to a regular school to transition back to the classroom.

Dance is adding money to provide more in-school tutoring to students who are falling behind, spending about $1 million to hire tutors for an additional 100 students.

Dance said he is asking for about $39.7 million more than the county government is required to provide schools by state regulations that determine a county's share of education costs. The biggest portion of that is $24 million to cover increases in salaries that are above the automatic, or step, increases given to employees as they move up the pay ladder.

"The bulk is investing in people," Dance said, adding that county school employees tend to remain in their jobs and "we have to reward them for staying."

Dance said he isn't sure how that pot of money would be spread out because he has not completed negotiations with the five bargaining units representing teachers and other employees.

If the budget increase is approved by the county, Dance said, it would be the first time in at least four years the county is providing more than the state requires. A significant portion of the $72.4 million increase includes paying for health care benefit increases and pension costs that the state is transferring to county governments.

In addition, the county is requiring the school system to pick up $3.6 million in the cost of workers' compensation claims.

The school system is adding new staff to handle an increasingly poor population of students. The number of students qualifying for a free or reduced-price lunch has increased by 59 percent and the number of homeless students has risen by more than 200 percent in the past decade. Dance is adding 15 additional employees to support homeless and special education transportation. He said the schools had not been providing enough transportation for homeless students as required under federal law.

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