In his last operating budget as Howard County school superintendent, Michael E. Hickey is asking for $325.1 million for fiscal year 2001--not for new programs, but to accommodate the system's growing population, continue reducing class sizes and speed up improvements to address some of the community's concerns about aging schools and inequitable resources.

Hickey's budget, which he will present to the Board of Education tonight, represents a 9 percent increase from fiscal 2000. It includes a request for $241 million from the county--$25 million more than was sought this year, and $20 million more than received this year--and counts on $78.5 million from the state. It does not include salary increases, which are being negotiated with employee unions.

"We're not really adding anything new this year," Hickey said, saying he created the budget with an eye toward both academic necessity and political reality. He wants a more robust budget than those of the lean-year 1990s but insists he is not asking for more than he thinks the county should be willing to spend--given not only the flush finances but also the current and intense focus on the quality of the schools. "It's how much can [County Executive] Jim Robey do without getting forced out of office," he said.

Of the increase, $2.1 million would go toward addressing issues parents and teachers have complained about in conversations about school equity: physical improvements at older schools, more resources for in-school printing and copying, and additional guidance counselors at some elementary schools.

An additional $6.8 million would allow initiatives started last year to continue. For example, in addition to some funding expected from the state, which would pay for 12 teachers, Hickey is asking for money to hire teachers so that all first- and second-grade classes can be reduced to 19 students. (Seventeen of the 37 elementary schools were brought to that level this year.)

Other staff positions that would be added under the proposed budget include six teachers and six assistants to bring programs for disruptive students into more schools, a data clerk in each of the middle schools to process the new automated report cards, and eight middle school reading specialists.

And $16.4 million of the increase would allow the system to deal with its growth: hiring 111 teachers to accommodate the 1,300 more students expected to enroll next year; furnishing the three schools slated to open next year (Bonnie Branch Middle, Ellicott Mills Middle and the alternative learning center); and keeping pace with transportation costs. Busing expenses are expected to increase 17 percent because of fuel prices, enrollment growth and the high costs of transporting more and more special education students.

In addition, the cost of health insurance for the staff is predicted to rise nearly 11 percent, or $2.6 million.

The Board of Education, after a Feb. 3 public hearing on the budget, will make its amendments in three evening work sessions and adopt its final request Feb. 22. County Executive James N. Robey (D) will present his budget to the County Council in mid-April, at which point--if Robey has cut funding--the council members can restore Hickey's requested funds if they choose to. They approve the budget in mid-May, and the board adopts its final version June 1.

Last year, Robey cut $5 million from Hickey's $224 million request. The council raised property taxes and found money elsewhere to restore $1.6 million of the shortfall.

In the year since, parents and teachers have grown louder in their complaints that older schools and Columbia schools were being shortchanged on resources. In response, the council commissioned a group of citizens to write a report on inequities in the schools, and Robey and Hickey set up a committee to investigate. Its findings are due in March.

As the discussion unfolded, some council members hinted at a desire to set the budget totals category by category (instruction, transportation, administration and so on), instead of simply providing the Board of Education with a single bottom-line figure.

"That's something I'm interested in at least considering, if they aren't using the money the way we think they should," said council member Allan H. Kittleman (R-West County).

Said Hickey: "If they do that, they are really going to create some problems, and it doesn't achieve what they want to achieve. It may be appealing to them to get some feeling of control, if that's the intent, or to punish us, if that's the intent, but it's a very poor ploy that risks the education of our children."