The Anne Arundel County Board of Education has approved an operating budget request that for the first time surpasses the $1 billion mark, and members say they're preparing to cross yet another unfamiliar threshold: working with a new county executive to enact the budget plan.
The school board passed the coming year's $1.01 billion operating budget — and also a request for $240 million in capital projects — on Wednesday, the day before the County Council was slated to interview candidates to fill the executive post vacated by John R. Leopold.
Members say they have already begun informal discussions with County Council members and other officials to help smooth a process that, in the past, has led to some strained relations.
Leopold had often noted that over 20 years, the school budget rose from 40 percent of the general budget to 52 percent, while other county priorities have been squeezed.
Board members say a changing of the guard might be a perfect time to improve communication.
"Obviously, given the current county executive situation in Anne Arundel right now, we're trying to do the best we can to promote our causes, but also build a little stronger relationship between the council and the school board," said board President Andrew Pruski.
"You have so much transition going on," he said. "It's hard to prognosticate what's going to occur, but I can tell you the board is doing everything, along with the superintendent, to relay our needs and the school system's needs for our kids."
Board member Deborah Ritchie said scheduling conflicts have prevented her from attending the informal meetings. But she believes they will be fruitful.
"We've been having informal meetings where we get to know each and our visions, and what we want to see happen, so we can create an atmosphere of trust and communication," she said.
"What we found is an issue that is not of communication, but the fact that we need to learn about each other's jobs," Ritchie said. "The board going to council meetings and [the] council coming to board meetings doesn't do that."
"Now, I don't envision us sitting around the campfire singing 'Kumbaya,' " Ritchie added, "but it's easier to make a phone call and say, 'This is what I heard.' It's a way of creating a welcome environment."
County Council member Jamie Benoit said he "can understand why they believe fences need to be mended." He noted a disagreement last year between the board and council about $5 million that was needed to fund a state-mandated pension requirement.
Last year's school budget talks came as the General Assembly passed a law requiring counties to pick up some of the costs for teacher pension funding; county officials said the school system went back on an agreement that would have allowed some of that money to come from school system coffers.
In July, the state Board of Education said the county failed to meet other school funding requirements by using school system funds for the $5 million shortfall. The county ultimately provided the $5 million, but the matter proved to be another bone of contention between the two sides.
"The school board didn't live up to their end of the agreement, and as a result the state said to give the board more money. It caused a little bit of static from the County Council," Benoit said. "I and a few others weren't happy about what has happened, and I believe the board understands that."
Anne Arundel County schools' chief operating officer, Alex Szachnowicz, called the pension issue "an interpretive disagreement." He said the school board had essentially agreed to let the council access the $5 million from the school system's fund balance, but the state "ultimately was the arbiter in interpreting the state's law."
He said the school system hopes to alleviate disputes this time around, and without an executive to negotiate with, board members have not only reached out to county officials, but also to those in the legislature and governor's office.
"We want to make sure that the county fully understands the nuances and the details of the board of education's requests," Szachnowicz said. "Everything to date has been nothing more than professional and courteous and business like. That's exactly the tone that I believe we seek to maintain."
The $1.01 billion operating budget is a 3.2 percent increase over the current budget and includes allocations for an
The school board approved the budget 8-1, with member Amalie Brandenburg voting against it.
"The budget is reasonable. We've been fiscally prudent in not asking for a very large percentage increase," said Pruski. "We have some money in there for salaries for employees, but there other things in terms of alternative education ... and other programs that we know are working. It's advocating for our children."
The $240 million capital budget request includes funding for the replacement of Rolling Knolls Elementary School and