Howard County schools have survived the annual budget season with minimal cuts, though officials warn that the trims could result in construction delays at two elementary schools if they do not receive extra money next year.
Cuts were made in funding for the new Bushy Park Elementary School in Glenwood and a new elementary school in the northeastern region of the county, both scheduled to open in 2007. Both schools are under construction. Officials said they are committed to ensuring that they stay on schedule, but School Superintendent Sydney L. Cousin said the cuts will "remove flexibility."
Still, the school system plans to spend record amounts of money in fiscal year 2006, which begins July 1. Last week, the County Council approved an overall operating budget of $1.1 billion -- more than half of which is devoted to public schools -- and a $235.3 million capital budget.
The council also approved County Executive James N. Robey's proposal to increase the trash fee by $50 a year, bringing the annual total to $175. The move will generate an extra $4 million for the environmental services fund, according to a report by Robey's office.
The $86.5 million capital budget approved by the school board last week also provides for renovations at Howard and Glenelg high schools. The board's $504 million operating budget includes money to open the new Marriotts Ridge High School.
The landmark school operating budget earmarks an increase in beginning teachers' salaries. Newly certified teachers will make $37,653 -- a 3 percent increase over this year's starting salary. The raise is equivalent to the increase current teachers will receive in fiscal year 2006. In fiscal 2007, teachers will get a 3.5 percent raise.
Board members said they were disappointed that they could not give more money to beginning teachers. Despite the increase, Howard will slip in state salary rankings from seventh to eighth place in the next fiscal year. Montgomery County ranks highest, with starting pay of $40,542.
But school officials said it would cost about $800,000 to put Howard in second place. School board Chairman Courtney Watson said the board will work to find the money over the next few months but could make no guarantees.
"This is one of the things that we're going without," she said.
Watson said this year represented "the smoothest budget process." The biggest ripple came after Robey asked school officials to slice about $8.4 million from their original operating budget request. In response, the board cut 21 new staff positions across art, music and physical education departments and in elementary schools.
But most of the reductions came through financial maneuvering, such as spending $2.3 million from money left over this year to pay some of next year's employee health care costs. The board also shifted $2.7 million from the operating to the capital budget. But Robey refused to approve an increase in the capital budget, forcing school officials to cut from projects underway.
As a result, $1 million was cut from the new northeastern elementary school, and $500,000 was taken from the Bushy Park replacement. The site acquisition fund and construction reserve also was reduced by $1 million. In addition, the board cut $226,000 budgeted for relocatable classrooms.