If you cup your ear and listen carefully, you might be able to hear the county's high school coaches pleading for more money for themselves and the programs they run.

Then again, that's probably just your imagination.

It seems hard to believe that just last spring the Howard County Coaches Association and School Superintendent Michael Hickey were talking seriously about expanding workshop pay, the two-week, $750 stipends provided for the county's football and soccer coaches. It seems harder to believe only three months ago Hickey rejected the association's request to include workshop pay in his new budget for all 110 of its members.

How quickly times have changed.

Since the fall, state governments, school systems, business people and taxpayers everywhere -- yes, even in well-to-do Howard County -- have been shaken up by the fear of burgeoning economic recession.

Unemployment is rising. Businesses are falling. Inflation is inching upward. Money, at the household and bureaucratic levels, is more scarce than it's been in10 years.

And when it comes to budgeting, additions are out. Belt-tightening is in.

Just ask the county's coaches. In the last few weeks, they've watched Hickey cut $10.5 million from his original $200.8 million budget proposal for the 1991-1992 school year. In the process, they've watched Hickey, besides refusing to discuss the addition of workshop pay because of its potential $198,000 price, cut even the most meager additions to high school athletics from his original budget.

Gone is the $12,000 that would have financed an athletic trainer pilot program at two high schools. Gone is the $57,000 in athletic equipment money, which was supposed to replace what the school board took from the equipment piggy bank last winter to pay for new band uniforms at three high schools.

The economic outlook has turnedso sour that in recent weeks County Executive Charles Ecker has evensuggested teachers -- about 60 percent of the county's coaching positions are filled by them -- give back the 6 percent wage increase they are scheduled to receive next year. Ecker wants another $1.5 million trimmed from Hickey's budget.

In light of these sobering financial troubles, the workshop pay issue -- which had Hickey and the coaches association talking into the summer last year -- has drifted so far down the priority list that it's become invisible.

Coaches should keep it that way.

After all, they forced Hickey to say no to workshop pay in November. Instead of justifying stipends on a sport-by-sport basis, an idea the two parties agreed on last summer, coaches wanted extra money for everyone. That approach may have preserved some unity in the association, but as a strategy for producing more dollars for coaches it was doomed to fail. In hindsight, the proposal probably would have failed no matter how it was worded.

The coaches need to think in larger, broader terms regarding their financial future. They need to plan two years down the road, when presumably the economy will be on the upswing again.

That's also when the school board and the Howard County Education Association will be negotiating their next contract. Part of those discussions will address coaches' pay, which promises to be a controversial topic if Hickey is still around. There's little reason to expect he won't be.

Hickey has promised to propose an hourly pay plan for coaches, like the plan under which Montgomery County coaches work and made nearly twice the money their Howard counterparts do. The Howard coaches waited until after the three-year deal was signed last spring to push the idea, even threatening to strike over it at one point. But the fact remains their threats were too hollow and came too late.

I don't expect the association -- now more organized and focused than ever -- to make that mistakeagain. They should be working on the numbers now.

Once an hourly pay plan is officially on the table, the rest of the negotiations will come down to salaries for each coaching job. Determining the pay for each position promises to be a tedious affair. But once the hourly plan is adopted, the workshop pay issue officially will be buried. There won't be any need to discuss additional stipends, since under thehourly plan that "extra time" will be accounted for.

For now, thecoaches association can do little while the economy worsens and Hickey struggles with a tight budget. Although Hickey can point to a barecupboard in response to concerns about the shortchanging of athletics, he can't change one fact.

The $57,000 the board cut from the athletic equipment budget last year should be restored. Unlike the athletic trainer program, which is an addition coaches shouldn't expect in the present economic climate, the athletic equipment budget was raided last year to pay for those infamous band uniforms.

Athletic departments have been asking for more equipment money for three years. Now they are being asked to go at least another year with less than they had before the cuts. Equipment has a way of eroding. Eroding equipment has a way of introducing safety risks to athletes.

The boardshouldn't be expected to give new gifts to athletics right now. But they should give back what they've taken.

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