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'Doomsday' budget would cut funds for Howard schools, community college

County Executive Ken Ulman's fiscal 2013 operating budget proposal was drafted under the assumption the General Assembly will hold a special session to increase income taxes on six-figure earners and shift teacher pension costs to the counties, phased in over four years.

Those revenue plans were agreed to by conference committees of Senate and House leaders but never voted on by the full chambers before the 2012 legislative session adjourned April 9.

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The legislature's inaction triggered the so-called "doomsday budget," which makes $500 million in cuts to Democratic priorities such as education and health care.

Gov. Martin O'Malley, who met with Senate President Mike Miller and House Speaker Mike Busch April 24 to discuss the budget dilemma, told the Baltimore Sun he is considering calling a special session in May. However, he said a final agreement has not been made. With no guarantee one will be made, county officials are still preparing for the possibility that the doomsday budget will go into effect.

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In Howard County, the doomsday cuts would hit the public school system and the Howard Community College. Ulman said the doomsday budget "would have minimal impact on our general fund budget."

Patti Caplan, spokeswoman for the school system, said if the state does not take further action and the doomsday budget were to go into effect, "We would have to cut about $8.3 million from our budget."

Though it's possible that some cuts could be prevented by using year-end surplus funds, Caplan said the there is no way the year-end funds, some of which have already been used to reduce the funding request the school system made to the county government, would come even close to $8.3 million.

That would leave the superintendent and the school board with the task of coming up with cuts.

"We're talking about some big ticket items here," Caplan said. "You're not going to be able to go in and take a little here and there."

The school board has been given a tentative list of potential cuts that could be made, Caplan said. On that list, she said, is funding for the expansion of the elementary school world language pilot program, new community liaison positions, a continuous improvement coordinator position, technology initiatives for school-based administration and media collection purchases for a new elementary school in Elkridge.

Also a possibility, Caplan said, would be increasing the class size for grades 1 and 2 from 19 students to 20 students and increasing the distance for students who qualify for transportation services by half a mile. Currently, transportation services are offered to elementary and middle school students who live a mile or more and high school students who live 1.5 miles or more away from their assigned school.

"We're hoping that we don't have to make those kinds of decisions," Caplan said.

Howard Community College, meanwhile, is facing $1.4 million in cuts if the doomsday budget were to go into effect.

In an interview April 23, Lynn Coleman, the college's vice president of administration and finance, declined to detail cuts administrators are looking at, as they have yet to be approved by the college Board of Trustees. The board was scheduled to meet April 25 to discuss the budget and potential cuts.

In addition to the potential doomsday cuts, the college definitely has to cut $1.1 million for its original budget request that Ulman did not fund in his budget proposal to the County Council, Coleman said.

HCC is already planning to increase tuition for the upcoming year by $4 per credit. A larger tuition increase, Coleman said, is something the Board of Trustees may consider to offset cuts.

Despite cuts that would have to be made to HCC's and the school system's budgets, Ulman said he believes the doomsday budget is "a better scenario" for the county.

"I still say that any scenario that doesn't include a teacher pension shift is better for Howard County," he said, explaining teacher pension costs will only increase in future years.

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