Ecker wants cut in school budget asks legal ruling


Howard County Executive Charles I. Ecker, saying he faces a financial crisis, is asking for a legal opinion from the state attorney general's office that will determine if he can cut the education budget by $7 million.

Such a cutback could have an impact on class sizes or on the previously negotiated 6 percent pay raise for teachers, which has been repeatedly criticized by Mr. Ecker, according to Michael E. Hickey, superintendent of schools.

Dr. Hickey said the Board of Education may take legal action if a new interpretation of the aid formula hurts the school system.

At issue is a state regulation that requires local jurisdictions to maintain at least the same level of spending per pupil as the previous year.

The county solicitor's office has concluded that "non-core" expenses -- such as keeping schools open after hours for community programs, capital expenses and transportation costs -- should not be factored in for per-pupil spending as has previously been the case.

That opinion is significantly "different from State Department of Education's traditional view," said Jack Schwartz, chief counsel for opinions with the attorney general's office.

However, he added, "We have not been asked to look at it before, so we are coming at it with a clean slate. The times have not been as tough as now. Before, when there was enough money to go around, it was not an issue."

An assistant attorney general, Valerie V. Cloutier, said she would develop an opinion in response to Howard County's request. The opinion, which would affect all school systems in the state, should be available within 10 days.

Mr. Ecker also asked what the penalty would be if the county did not meet the per-pupil spending regulations. Dr. Hickey said he believes it would mean a loss of $1.5 million in new state aid to education.

Dr. Hickey maintains that the county is required under the state formula to give the school board $5.2 million more than the $140.5 million it received this year because the system expects 1,300 more students.

But if the county's view is upheld, the school system would get about $2 million less than it got last year -- or about $7 million below the amount it is now expects to receive, said Raymond S. Wacks, the county budget officer.

Mr. Ecker, who announced earlier this week that he plans to lay off 200 county employees and perhaps furlough others, said yesterday that he was requesting the opinion because he did not believe it was "fair for the county government to take all the hits."

Teachers, he said, should not receive a 6 percent raise "during a financial crisis. We are all in this together. We are all one county."

Dr. Hickey said he would be "very surprised if the state turns around and changes the rules of the game because we are in the midst of a financial crisis. . . . It would be unconscionable for the state to say it is wrong, after all these years."

He also said he was "very tired of hearing the county government was suffering at the expense of the school system. We cut $12.9 million from my original request, eliminating 70 positions. We have done our share."

Dr. Hickey said Mr. Ecker has promised, in writing, to meet the state's formula for spending per pupil. "He has given me his word he would, and I expect him to do that."

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