School board must make real stand on artificial turf fields

Like a veteran quarterback seeing a defensive formation that gives him pause, the county school board has exercised the sensible option and called time out.

The Board of Education last week nixed a proposal to use $2 million from the state to build artificial-turf athletic fields at Hammond and Atholton high schools, directing the superintendent and his staff to come up with a new list of priorities for the $4 million total that the state Board of Public Works on Oct. 5 voted to give to Howard County schools for capital projects. The previously unbudgeted money comes from the recent increase to the state's tax on alcoholic beverages.

The school board's move comes in defiance of County Executive Ken Ulman, who has threatened to withhold funding for turf fields for the county's other high schools.

The school board was right to put the brakes on the deal, and should not give in to Ulman's blackmail. Right now, the board looks like the only responsible party in this episode.

Apparently, the Board of Public Works approved the expenditure from the county school system without knowing that the school board hadn't vetted the proposal yet. Comptroller Peter Franchot — who sits on the state's supreme triumverate of doling out of money with Gov. Martin O'Malley and Treasurer Nancy Kopp — told us he had assumed the school board had signed off on it.

That school system officials submitted it to Franchot, O'Malley and Kopp without running it past their board first doesn't sit well either. Authority over and responsibility for the system's expenditures rests with the Board of Education. That doesn't change just because the state came into some extra cash.

Ulman comes off looking downright petulant, saying that unless the school board uses the money to build turf fields at Atholton and Hammond, "there would be absolutely no county money coming for fields," athough he had planned to fund three additional turf fields a year at the other high schools.

"If we don't do it now," he said, channeling the late William Donald Schaefer, "we're not going to do it any time soon."

Asked after the school board's decision whether he intended to follow through on his threat, Ulman evaded the question.

At best, this proposal is a rush job. At worst, it's political hackery. The members of the Board of Education — each elected by the voters of Howard County — must stand firm in their responsibility to spend whatever money the school system has where it will benefit county students the most. Maybe that is turf fields. But deciding that is the board's job, and no one else's.

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