St. Mary's County Schools Superintendent Patricia M. Richardson last week proposed an 8.7 percent increase in the county school system's next operating budget. She said the extra money is needed for existing programs and new initiatives to improve student achievement.

At Wednesday's Board of Education meeting, Richardson presented her $94.7 million budget request for fiscal 2001, an increase of $7.6 million over the current budget of $87.1 million.

Board members' initial reactions were to ask for an alternative, lower budget. The board asked Richardson to put together a revised spending plan that would cut $1 million from her original proposal. Board members plan to review both plans this week.

The superintendent's proposed budget would require an increase of $5.7 million in county funding and a more modest $1.6 million increase in state funding. The budget would include $53.1 million in county funds--a 12 percent boost in local spending--and $39.8 million in state funds, with the remainder coming from other sources.

Much of the increase in Richardson's budget would pay for the equivalent of 85.4 new full-time positions, a number that most board members said was too high. Of those positions, 24 would be filled by additional teachers to be hired to reduce class sizes, an initiative that will cost nearly $1 million. The other positions include special education teachers and paraprofessionals, instructional resource teachers, counselors and hall monitors.

School board member Michael L. Hewitt questioned the need for 85.4 positions to accommodate the 234 additional full-time students the county is expecting next school year. At that time, school officials expect a full-time enrollment of about 14,185 students.

"When I see 85.4 staff to 234 kids I say, wow, that's a lot," Hewitt said.

Others echoed his concerns. "I, too, am concerned about the number of positions we're requesting," said board Chairman John K. Parlett Jr. "It's incumbent upon us as a board to do what is fiscally responsible. . . . I think we need to be realistic."

Richardson stressed that the new staff members are needed to help all students, not just the 234 additional students expected next year.

"They're not just for the 234 kids," she said. "We have children who are not meeting the state standards, so the kinds of things we're trying to put in place are to help all 14,000 children."

Member Mary M. Washington said the board should not be afraid to ask for what they need.

"Our job is to put forth the needs of our county. We have to be honest with the county commissioners about what our needs are," she said. "The students are going to suffer with the cuts."

Also in the superintendent's budget is just over $134,000 for therapists, $118,300 for additional nurses and $200,000 for textbooks.

Current contracts for teachers and staff provide for a 2.5 percent pay raise, requiring a budget increase of nearly $2 million. The plan also sets aside more than $700,000 for transportation costs, including an increase in the number of contracts, and $180,000 for three new school buses.

Among several requests earmarked for technological services were slightly more than $87,000 for two new technology technicians and $68,000 for software. The board plans to present its budget request to the county commissioners on March 3.

Also last week, St. Mary's Board of Commissioners said it would support the school board's appeal of state education officials' rejection of the Carver Elementary project, and renovations at the tech center and Margaret Brent Middle School, as parts of the county's capital improvements program for fiscal 2001 to 2005.

Last month, the commissioners had voted not to support an earlier appeal of the same decision by the Interagency Committee for Public School Construction because they were unsure the county could afford the three projects. In response, school officials moved some projects, such as the Leonardtown Elementary School and Town Creek Elementary School renovations, beyond 2005, to free up funds for the three rejected projects.

Now the school board may get a chance to begin those projects before 2005. With the commissioners' support, school officials plan to again appeal to the state on Jan. 26.