Magnet called 'vulnerable' to reduced funding
Superintendent Jerry Weast unveiled his budget for next year at Blair on Dec 12 amid fears that a budget shortfall could necessitate a reduction in funding for Blair's Magnet program among other substantial cutbacks.
As the local economy struggles and the state runs a deficit, Weast pleaded for a budget increase of more than $36 million, just enough to "pay the bills," he said. If Weast does not receive the additional money, the county will be forced to make "significant" cuts. "If we don't get the increase, it'll be a big step backward," he said.
Magnet Coordinator Eileen Steinkraus called the Magnet "vulnerable" to budget cuts because unlike in previous years, funding now is not earmarked specifically for the Magnet. Instead, the county allocates the money.
At the beginning of this school year, Steinkraus had to submit to MCPS a budget plan of Magnet expenditures anticipated over the next five years. This is the first year Steinkraus has been asked to do so.
Steinkraus noted, however, that although MCPS seems to warn every year about a tightening budget, the Magnet's budget has remained about the same for the last ten years.
Marshall Spatz, director of MCPS' budget department, has heard no discussion of cutting the Magnet and said the Magnet's funding is not in danger. "[The Magnet] is one of our most important programs," said Spatz.
At more than $1.5 billion, next year's projected budget for MCPS is the largest of any county's in state history. Weast's request for more than $36 million exceeds the federal, state and local money already allotted to MCPS.
MCPS will not create any new budget initiatives next year. Weast said he supports retaining existing programs.
In addition to budget cuts, the partial freeze on school spending that MCPS imposed on Oct 1—leaving Blair unable to hire a full-time registrar—will remain in effect throughout this school year, according to MCPS Communications Director Brian Porter. Last year, the freeze saved the county $10 million, Porter said.
Weast said his proposed cuts affect mostly administrative costs, which account for 2 percent of the operating budget. Weast believes cuts will also be needed in the areas of curriculum, staff development, technology and maintenance. Some instructional assistants and support staff positions will be eliminated, said Weast. "We're cutting programs that directly affect our instructional programs," he said.
Spatz predicted no funding reduction for the Downcounty Consortium, slated to begin in 2004 with Blair as one of five consortium high schools. "The Board [of Education] is committed to the Downcounty Consortium," he said. "I don't see any change at all."
Funds for the construction of Northwood High School, a downcounty school whose upcoming renovation is intended to relieve Blair's overcrowding, have already been allocated in a separate budget. MCPS Project Manager James Song called Weast's recommendation of $16.5 million "adequate" for the construction of Northwood.
The new fiscal demands on MCPS stem from an increase of 1,900 students expected in MCPS' enrollment next year, said Spatz. He is concerned mostly with funding provided by the state, which now faces deficits and, he said, will face a deficit again next year.
While state funds shrink, MCPS ranks as the nation's twelfth-fastest-growing school district, and many new students face economic and language difficulties, said Porter.
MCPS is spending all available funds with care as it faces a "severe" budget shortfall, Weast said.
The Board of Education will debate the budget in three forums in January and vote in early February before sending it to County Executive Doug Duncan and the County Council for approval.
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