School Superintendent Eric J. Smith swooped into Anne Arundel County 10 months ago with a big reputation and aspirations to match.
Within a month of his arrival, he announced that he would double the number of eighth-graders who complete Algebra I and nearly triple the percentage of high school students taking college-level Advanced Placement classes. He would begin to wipe out the persistent gap between white and black students' test scores. And he would do it, he promised, in record time.
He'd done it before, in Charlotte -- an urban school district one and a half times the size of Anne Arundel.
But there was one big thing that Smith did not count on: lean economic times.
This week, with the state's budget woes trickling down to counties, Smith learned that he would be fortunate to get half of his requested $22 million increase in school funding for next fiscal year. "I told him I'd aim for $11 million, and now I'm not sure I can do that anymore," said County Executive Janet S. Owens (D).
It's a situation that school leaders across the region are facing, but the reality has hit Smith particularly hard. His reputation is on the line. To achieve his promises, he said, he needs money -- "and this is the toughest budget I've ever had to deal with."
If Owens's current thinking holds and is approved by the County Council next month, the school system will get $416.7 million from the county, rather than the $427.7 million Smith had sought in what he termed a "responsible" request. The remainder of the school system's $643.8 million operating budget comes from state, federal and local funds.
An $11 million hole in Smith's spending plan could lead to some difficult choices, he said.
For instance, under their union contract, the county's 5,100 teachers are to get a 3 percent pay raise, which would cost the school district $12.9 million. A "funding out" clause in the contract, however, allows the district to take away the raises when funds from the county are not available.
If they go ahead with the raises, Smith and the Anne Arundel school board would have to look elsewhere in their budget to find money to create programs for their 76,000 students -- from new math and reading textbooks Smith wants for students in kindergarten through eighth-grade, at a cost of $6.1 million, to several other new initiatives, including more Advanced Placement classes and all-day kindergarten at 10 schools.
"We're going to have a major problem," said teachers union President Sheila M. Finlayson, who worries that salary increases will be the first casualty. "Teachers are going to be extremely unhappy, as they should be. We have many, many new initiatives going on that are requiring more and more of teachers."
Smith said he understands that his budget decisions have the potential to harm morale in a county where teachers generally make less than counterparts in surrounding counties. "These are the people that have to deliver, and it is tough," he said.
At the same time, he remains committed to the agenda he laid out in August, one that school board members heartily applauded. "The goals don't change for the school system," Smith said. "We're still focused on what we set out to do last summer."
School board member Paul G. Rudolph said he is aware of the tight budget possibilities but still hopes that Owens and the County Council will see a less dire situation when the final budget is approved. This week, Owens said that while she has traditionally made education one of her top priorities, the harsh economic climate is forcing her to focus on the basics: maintaining essential services such as police protection and trash collection.
Otherwise, for the schools, it may come down to teachers' raises vs. Smith's academic initiatives. "It's a rock-and-a-hard-place situation," Rudolph said. "It's going to be a difficult June."