Separate taxation for county schools proposed to Ecker


A proposal to give the Howard County school board special taxing authority to raise money for schools is being evaluated by the county executive, who came under fire this year for making cuts in the education budget.

The concept is "still in the mulling stage," said County Executive Charles I. Ecker, who said he considered the proposal, advanced by the president of the local Chamber of Commerce, "an idea worth exploring."

Richard Pettingill, the chamber president, said he suggested the separate taxing authority for county schools recently when the group's executive board met with Mr. Ecker.

"I threw it out for him to chew on because the reality should be that the people with responsibility for the education system should have the ability to make the final decisions," said Mr. Pettingill.

Mr. Ecker, a Republican and retired deputy superintendent of county schools, said he did not like having government "responsible for raising money but denied the responsibility for the education program."

But before deciding to advance the proposal officially, Mr. Ecker said there are a "lot of advantages and disadvantages that have to be weighed."

He said if he decides to support the proposal, he would ask for a study involving the public and the school board before requesting the necessary legislation from the General Assembly.

Mr. Ecker said cutting the education budget, including pay raises and step increases for teachers, "was very distasteful."

"I had to balance my subjective feeling of what the taxpayers want with the needs of education, police and human services," the executive said. "It was a tough balancing act."

Michael E. Hickey, superintendent of schools for the past seven years, said he is familiar with the concept of allowing the school system -- instead of the county -- to raise money for education because he worked for such systems in Minnesota and Washington state.

In those jurisdictions, Dr. Hickey said, there is a set tax the school system could levy automatically; and "beyond that level, you would have to go to voters for a levy override for either a permanent or set time period."

Dr. Hickey said he would have to see what form a special taxing authority would take in Howard County and what impact it would have on the state financing of local education before staking out a position.

The superintendent said he is convinced that residents of the county, where 35 percent of the households have children in public schools, are "supportive" of the local school system.

"This would be one way to put it to the test," Dr. Hickey said.

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