Calvert County's school superintendent said this week that the county commissioners' decision to limit any school budget increase next year to less than $2 million was an "unrealistic" goal that would not affect his drafting of next year's budget.

"By law, the superintendent has to set a budget . . . that he feels is needed to run the school system efficiently," Superintendent James R. Hook said.

What Hook expects to need next year conflicts with the county commissioners' decision to try to limit additional funding for county public schools in fiscal 2001 to no more than a 2 percent increase over this year.

Last year, Hook proposed a budget calling for an 8.6 percent increase in county funding. That number was trimmed by the time it got to county commissioners for approval. The fiscal 2000 budget includes $58.2 million in county funds.

If the commissioners stick to a 2 percent limit on increases, funding could go up about $1.8 million over the $58.9 million required by a formula that states the county must spend at least the same amount per pupil it spent the previous year, taking into account enrollment increases.

That level of spending, Hook said, is unrealistic. "The school system--just to stand still--needs $5 million or $6 million in new money each year, and that's not even with any new initiatives," he said.

Hook said the cap would curtail his plans to further reduce class sizes and would not even be sufficient for the salary increases in the current contract with teachers. It also does not take into account the opening of the new Mill Creek Middle School.

"What I plan on doing is building a budget we feel is right," he said. "If $1.8 million is the mark we're hoping we come in at, it's not realistic unless we get an awful lot of revenue from the state."

Once the superintendent proposes a budget, it goes to the Board of Education and then to county commissioners for approval. That process will last into the spring of next year.

Gordon Smith, director of finance for Calvert County public schools, said $1.8 million in new funding would not be enough to accommodate the estimated 500 new students expected each year. In comparison, the county approved almost $3.9 million in new funding for fiscal 2000, Smith said. "For about the same level of growth, we're looking at approximately half the funding," he said.

Hook and other Calvert school officials said they were surprised that the commissioners approved the cap. "I'm somewhat taken aback by their action the other day," he said. "As far as I'm concerned, it came out of nowhere."

"I was frankly surprised that they would set a limit without hearing what the superintendent's budget was," said Robert L. Gray, president of the school board.

The county commissioners voted 4 to 1 to support the cap. Concern over how the electric utility deregulation would affect county coffers seemed to permeate the debate. Commissioner David F. Hale (R-Owings) said he took into account that the school board would be receiving a payback directly from the state to make up for local tax revenue lost because of deregulation.

In response to school officials' concerns, he said, "I would expect them to say that. They need to go into negotiation with that position."

Commissioner Patrick M. Buehler (D-St. Leonard) was the sole dissenter. "I think they [the Board of Education] spend their money wisely," he said. "They've even kept their buildings up well. . . . I hate to see it start to slip."

Staff writer Hannah Allam contributed to this report.