The Howard Chamber of Commerce has appointed a task force to help county public school officials cut costs in construction, operation and administration.
The task force is, in part, a response to the public debate between County Executive Charles I. Ecker and county schools Superintendent Michael E. Hickey over spending on school construction.
The chamber also wants to make sure the county's property tax rate remains stable in the face of continuing state budget cuts to local governments.
"Howard County's school system is one of the finest in the state," said William Munn, the chamber president. "The business community has an interest in making sure that is protected. The first things companies look at when deciding to move or set up new operations is the quality of the school system and the stability of local taxes."
The initial focus of the 11-member task force will be school construction and operating costs, said Mr. Munn, president of Maryland Environmental Systems.
The county plans to spend $37 million for school construction and renovation in the 1993-1994 fiscal year, which begins July 1.
Last month, Mr. Ecker said the county school system needed to be more efficient in construction spending and said he wanted to trim that spending by at least 10 percent in the new fiscal budget, which begins July 1.
Mr. Hickey countered that there was no rationale for the proposal, saying the county's school construction costs were not extravagant.
"There has been a lot of concern over the capital budget, and we think we have people on the task force who can bring a more objective outlook to the issue," said Dick Pettingill, a Columbia resident and partner in Casey and Associates, a commercial real estate broker.
Mr. Pettingill will serve as chairman of the task force.
"The people on the task force have no vested interests in the school budget nor a proprietary interest in the sense of building our own empire. We're also not going to be a PTA for the business community," he said.
Patti Caplan, public information officer for the county school system, said the school superintendent welcomes the task force initiative.
"They will bring an outsider's perspective that could prove helpful," said Ms. Caplan.
She noted that the department working on school construction and renovation issues is understaffed and that assistance from the task force may benefit cost savings.
Education represents the county's largest single-department expenditure.
During the current fiscal year, which ends June 30, $27 million, or 55 percent of the county's $51 million operating budget, was earmarked for education.
The county pays about 74 percent of the county public school system's budget. The rest is made up in state and federal funding.
The task force's goal will be "to help the school system deliver a better product with efficiency," said Mr. Pettingill.
He expects the task force to meet with Mr. Hickey in about three weeks and then to meet with school administrators to become familiar with the school budget.
The task force has several business executives with experience in commercial property management and land development, such as Gerald Brock, a senior executive with Rouse Co., Columbia's developer; and Cole Schnorf, an executive with Manekin Corp., which builds and manages shopping centers nationally.
Other task force members include an administrator at Howard General Hospital and a senior executive in the operations department of BG&E; who is considered a specialist in energy conservation.
"We're not trying to duplicate what school administrators are already doing, but to bring in the experience of people in the private sector who have done a lot of budget crunching during a recession," said Mr. Munn.
He said he expects the task force to be a continuing venture by the chamber.
"It won't be like a commission that does a review, issues a report of recommendations, and that's it. We see this as a long-term relationship with the schools."