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Parents Swayed Board on Budget

Schools' Full Request Sent to County

By Daniel de Vise
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, February 24, 2005; Page AA03

The Anne Arundel Board of Education unanimously backed the superintendent's request for a 10 percent increase in education spending for fiscal 2006, quietly reversing a recent shift in fiscal philosophy.

The Feb. 16 vote came just weeks after board members indicated that they were headed in the same direction as last year, when they cut several million dollars from Superintendent Eric J. Smith's budget request before sending it to the county executive.

Instead, the board this time not only backed Smith's proposed budget, but added nearly $1 million to the spending plan. Though still clearly divided, the board approved the $735.9 million budget in a 7-0 vote, with one member absent.

Why the change of heart? The reason, participants and observers say, could be as simple as an illness that kept a particular board member home, or as complex as the relationship between the board and devoted parent groups. Parents wrote 170 postcards to the school board and bombarded them with e-mails and telephone messages encouraging them to support Smith.

"If you don't ask for it, you have no chance of getting it," said Debbie Ritchie, countywide PTA president, who lobbied the board to support the superintendent's budget request.

The school board is fiscally dependent on the County Council, which, along with County Executive Janet S. Owens (D), decides how much will be spent on education and raises the necessary taxes. In response to the school board's actions last week, Owens said in a written statement: "I am dismayed at the total, which is unrealistic."

Over the past several years, the County Council has generally funded the school district below the level sought by the school board and superintendent. Last year, at the prompting of board President Edward P. "Ned" Carey, school board members found out how much money they were likely to get from the County Council and made the cuts themselves. That move was a marked change from tradition, which dictated that the school board approve a budget virtually identical to what the superintendent had requested.

Several board members had favored making their own cuts again this year. But last week, when the school board met to approve the budget, Carey was home sick. During the meeting, the board rejected by a single vote a motion to proceed as they had last year -- when the budget was trimmed and then presented to Owens, along with a priority list of things to add if more money were available.

Konrad M. Wayson, the board vice president, said he is convinced it would have been better to trim the budget before sending it to Owens. But he said telephone calls and letters from parents helped persuade him to support the superintendent's full budget when it came to a final vote.

"I will be out there advocating for full funding for this budget, because that is what our group as a whole passed, even though my philosophy says that's not the way it should have gone down," he said.

Wayson says he fears the board's support for Smith will prove an empty gesture. Owens has indicated throughout the budget process that she is unlikely to support a 10 percent increase.

It's up to parents, Wayson said, to lobby Owens and the County Council to support the programs that make up the $66 million increase in proposed school spending. Owens presents her budget to the council on May 2, and the council votes on the budget later that month.

Ritchie, the county PTA chief, said parents will soon turn up the heat on Owens and the council.

"Our parents understand that this is only the first leg of the journey," Ritchie said. "Now, we need to make sure that the message gets through to the county executive."


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