Teachers union, board members question budget priorities for Baltimore County schools

… Hairston’s proposal would decrease number of teachers in schools, increase administrative funding …

baltimoresun.com

By Liz Bowie, The Baltimore Sun

3:54 PM EST, January 29, 2011

In a year of tight funding, Baltimore County’s teachers union and some school board members are questioning Superintendent Joe A. Hairston’s budget priorities, which would cut the number of teachers in schools but increase administrative spending.

The school system would spend $6.1 million more on new technology while eliminating nearly 200 teaching positions next year if the proposed budget is approved.

The school system, which places a priority on spending for technology, is asking the Baltimore County Council to fund improvements including a $1.6 million expansion for wireless Internet access in some schools. The wireless access allows students to use laptops and hand-held technology and is less expensive than hard-wired Internet access, according to the county’s budget documents.

Overall, the county would reduce its expenditures on instruction by 2 percent, while increasing its spending on administration by 9 percent, including new technology, which is classified under administration.

“What is frustrating to teachers is that we are decreasing 196 teaching positions while at the same time we are doing new things with technology,” said Cheryl Bost, president of the teachers union.

The decline in the number of teaching positions at a time when enrollment is expected to jump by more than 900 students would mean class sizes would increase by two to an average of 29 students per class in high schools. In addition, class sizes would grow by one student in middle schools and some elementary grades. Struggling schools would be exempt from the class size increases.

Some high school librarians would be eliminated and there would be slightly fewer music, art and physical education teachers for elementary schools.

The proposed operating budget for the fiscal year beginning in July is $1.3 billion for a system with 105,000 students and 18,000 employees. It would increase spending by 0.5 percent. It includes $19 million to give teachers “step” increases provided in the contract, but does not give them a cost-of- living increase.

Some school board members have questioned whether administrative costs are too high. “I don’t see a lot of cuts or sacrifices by the central area staff,” Michael Bowler, a school board member, said at a recent board meeting. National education advocacy groups who analyze school budgets recommend strategic cuts rather than across-the-board reductions, he said.

The school system is proposing a 5 percent reduction in central office and individual school budgets that do not involve salaries, in addition to the decrease in teaching staff. Bowler said Baltimore City has cut its administrative staff by about a third in the past several years. “Any serious thought given to that?” he asked Hairston.

Hairston said the county has always been conservative in its approach to spending. Barbara Burnopp, the district’s top financial officer, said administrative costs are in line with those of other districts and that the system conducts regular reviews of spending.

In an interview, Burnopp defended the priorities, explaining that school funding rules don’t allow the county to transfer the money requested for technology to pay teachers unless it asks the county to increase its “maintenance of effort,” or its overall contributions to funding schools. Technology is a one-time expense that doesn’t count in the maintenance-of-effort spending.

A county cannot decrease its maintenance of effort from one year to the next unless it receives an exemption from the Maryland State Department of Education.

Baltimore County may get more money from the state than the $3 million extra it has allotted in its budget proposal. Early state budget estimates show the county getting an additional $10 million, which would give the system $7 million more than what is in its current budget.

Burnopp, however, said she is unsure that the figures are accurate and that the county would not count on the additional funds until the legislature has approved the state budget.

She said administrative costs cannot be easily reduced because all but 75 positions in the administration are covered by unions. The county has negotiated contracts with its unions this year that commit to no furloughs or layoffs, she said.

But Bost said if the system is decreasing teaching positions through attrition it could do the same with administrators. “We have at least two administrative vacancies that could be collapsed,” she said.

The system has not reviewed the administrative offices to see if some are over- or understaffed, she said. “It is demoralizing to teachers to know they are the front lines and they are going to have to do more with less and yet the administration will not,” she said.

Another school board member, Ramona N. Johnson, questioned whether a college guidance program for students at the county’s two lowest-performing high schools should be cut, saying she believes it is an “extremely important” program. She also questioned whether the system needs to replace furniture at a cost of $400,000 to $500,000.

In addition to the money spent on wireless access, the system would spend $414,000 to replace 28 middle school file servers and $825,000 to move a data center from a leased building to a county-owned building and provide new equipment for it.

Another priority will be developing and implementing a new language arts curriculum with an emphasis on grammar and writing. The project was put on hold last year.

liz.bowie@baltsun.com

Copyright © 2011, The Baltimore Sun

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