Proposed Budget Irks School Chief

By William Wan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, May 2, 2008

Anne Arundel County Executive John R. Leopold unveiled a proposed $1.2 billion operating budget yesterday that provoked an angry response from school officials who are trying to fund negotiated pay and benefit increases for teachers and other employees.

Leopold (R) said his budget, which calls for a modest, 2.9 percent increase in spending from the current fiscal year, reflects the times. "In these difficult economic times, we must find the political fortitude to make budgetary decisions that reflect cold fiscal reality," he said.

Shortly after Leopold's announcement, school officials called his proposal "devastating."

School Superintendent Kevin M. Maxwell and the school board had asked for a $100 million increase in the county's contribution to the education budget, which totals about $869 million this fiscal year, including state and federal funds.

But Leopold's budget includes half the requested increase, most of which was supposed to go toward pay and benefit increases for teachers, custodians, administrators, secretaries and other school workers. In his proposal, Leopold funded most of the pay raises but not the health and benefit increases in the negotiated contracts.

"If you want a Mercedes, you have to pay for a Mercedes," Maxwell said. "We didn't even ask for a Mercedes. . . . We asked for a Chrysler and got a pogo stick."

School officials vowed yesterday to make difficult cuts in other areas to fully fund the employee contracts. Breaking the contracts, they said, would worsen the county's difficulties in recruiting and retaining teachers and other employees.

"Our schools cannot go from good to great if they aren't adequately funded," Maxwell said.

Maxwell said inadequate funding is one reason that Anne Arundel schools have an inferior academic reputation and lower test scores than public schools in such neighboring counties as Howard.

Leopold defended his budget proposal by pointing out that he allocated half of the entire county budget to schools. School officials, however, said many counties in Maryland devote more than half their budgets to education.

Like many other counties, Anne Arundel is facing rising costs and decreasing revenue. But Leopold has vowed to keep a campaign promise not to raise income and property tax rates.

Leopold's budget does include several million dollars from increases in other taxes and fees. But much of his focus has been on cutting county departments, staff, grants and expenses.

Leopold proposed raising a hotel room tax from 7 to 10 percent to fund the raises for school secretaries. He also proposed a new ambulance service fee and increases in subdivision and permit fees.

The county executive's budget includes several initiatives, such as a program to reduce the mortality rate among black infants and one to help communities with old leaking septic systems.

"For a small budget, it seems to have a lot of initiatives," said County Council Chairman Cathleen Marie Vitale (R-Severna Park). "The council will be curious how a lot of these will be funded."

In coming weeks, the County Council will consider Leopold's budget. The council can add to the amount Leopold has designated for particular areas only if it makes cuts elsewhere or raises revenue.

Maxwell and other school officials are scheduled to appear before the council today as part of a series of budget hearings scheduled this month with various departments. The council is supposed to approve its version of the budget by June 1.

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