Four million dollars is not easily hidden or cut in a school budget already twice scrutinized, but that is what the Montgomery County Board of Education set out to do at the eleventh hour last week.
Their goal was a budget that would require no property tax increase. The cost was three junior high schools, $1 million in pension funds and lower average starting salaries for new teachers.
By whittling a proposed $340.4 million operating budget for the coming fiscal year down to $336.5 million, the board believed it had arrived at a budget that it could present to the County Council as both responsible and representative of the schools' minimum needs.
There was no consensus on the board that the best cuts had been made, and Superintendent Edward Andrews clearly felt the board had gone too far.
The new budget lowers the average starting salary next year for newly hired teachers from $16,433 to $16,035, a move that would save an estimated $284,370. But the action was protested at the meeting last week by Steve Rohr, director of personnel. He told the board that even at current salary levels he frequently has been forced to hire a teacher he felt was not as qualified as another more experienced -- and therefore more expensive -- applicant.
The board subtracted another $1 million from the unfunded accrued liability for pensions, which is like raising a debt ceiling. The school system still must pay that amount, but now will do so over the next 16 years. Interest is expected to double the amount.
The board got an earlier start on the budget than in recent years by beginning voting sessions in January immediately after preliminary review, rather than confining action to two days in February.
Board members tried to designate positive and negative "wish lists" -- as the County Council does -- for items they wanted to add or cut. But at the end of five days the board had put 16 items on the positive list and only seven on the negative, for a net addition to the budget of $572,575.
They had added $309,444 for textbooks, $214,016 for safety assistants in high schools and restored some special education teaching positions that were initially cut. Motions to add 10 all-day kindergartens and restore the seven-period day to some of the smaller high schools did not pass.
The largest single addition to the fiscal 1982 budget was decided last year, when a two-year contract for school employes was negotiated. It gave all school employes a 9.5 percent cost-of-living increase that came to $22.9 million.
To keep the final budget figure down, Andrews included a sum for utilities that County Executive Charles W. Gilchrist and County Council President Ruth Spector felt was too low. They wrote in a letter to School Board President Carol Wallace on the final budget-action day that the board had seriously underbudgeted utilities and warned that they would not support a request later for supplemental revenues.
Andrews fought any motion to add to the utilities funds because he feared that if as a result the total budget figure was too high, cuts would come out of education programs or, as was frequently the case in this budget process, out of school administration.
"The County Council and county executive are on to our game of underbudgeting these accounts," said board member Blair Ewing. "Now that they're on to that game and put themselves on the record (with the letter), we may be eating it all next year."
His motion to add $500,000 to the fuel account did not receive a second. A motion passed later to add $125,000.
Board member Marian L. Greeblatt, consistent with her frequent comments on the need to close schools quickly, made a motion to close 10 elementary schools and three junior highs for a savings of nearly $2 million. That motion did not pass. Her second motion to close three as yet unnamed junior high schools got the necessary four votes.
"This would bring us close to a no-tax-increase budget," she said. "We are not naming schools. There still can be a process in the spring. I urge you to do it as this point rather than wait for the County Council to take action in May."
The last of a series of bitterly contested school-closing decisions was made in December 1979. Since then the board has been waiting for a 15-year master facilities plan to be completed by the school system's planning department working with local and state government officials.
The plan would recommend specific schools to be closed in the next five years and the number of schools the county would need in the following decade. Decision-making criteria and procedures would be laid out. Andrews and board members have said that as many as 30 to 35 schools may have to be closed in June 1982.
The plan is not to be adopted by the board before the communities affected have two months to study and respond to the proposals. But the plan will not be completed until April, and the three junior high schools must be selected well before June. School officials said the process will have be speeded up for those three schools.
Ewing, Elizabeth W. Spencer and Wallace voted against the motion to close three schools, saying that the chief problem with closing schools in the past has been that due process has not been provided.
Another reduction was made by subtracting $1.5 million from the total of $13.8 million in requested federal, state and private agency grants for programs such as Head Start, Project Basic and vocational education.
Board member Joseph R. Barse, who made the motion, explained that historically the superintendent requests more spending authorization that the school system will get revenues for. For example, in the fiscal 1980 budget, the superintendent budgeted $12.5 million for these programs and received $11.3 million.
The budget goes to the County Council on March 2. County Council members will review it and act on a suggested list of "denials" made by the county executive. Last year the board asked for a $314 million budget but got $309.1 million, with the County Council taking out $2.1 million in fringe benefits that were prefunded for retirees, lowering the average salary for newly hired teachers and specifying a longer vacancy period before positions were filled.