County Council members gave the county schools a farewell present last night in the form of a $1.6 million installment to bring older schools' computers and other technology up to par with new ones.
"The technology, next to the teachers, is the most important thing we're putting into our schools," said Republican Councilman Darrel Drown, who faces an election challenge Nov. 8 from Board of Appeals Chairman George Layman, a Democrat.
With little more than a month to go before the election, council members were showing a rare unanimity, approving a number of fund transfers and other appropriations measures with little comment.
The bill to provide $1.6 million in borrowing for upgrading aging schools' high-technology equipment seemed to lift the spirits of the three council members running for re-election and the council member seeking a state delegate seat next month.
School funding and who can take credit for securing it is a key issue in a county where schools serve as a magnet for new residents.
It even cheered Democrat Paul Farragut of west Columbia, the one council member who is not seeking election to any office next month.
"It's really good to see this happen," he said after the meeting. "It's easy to get capital dollars [for school construction], and that puts older schools at a competitive disadvantage. This will kind of level the playing field."
That playing field is now a place where money borrowed through bond sales pays not only for a new school's bricks and mortar, but for computer labs and television production studios as standard equipment.
Democratic Councilwoman Shane Pendergrass beamed as she cast her vote and praised fellow council members for working out their differences on school funding earlier in the year.
"That's been the kind of council this has been, and that's a nice memory," said Ms. Pendergrass, who has represented the county's southeastern corridor, along with a part of east Columbia. She is one of two Democratic nominees for seats in the House of Delegates District 13A.
Council Chairman C. Vernon Gray was low-key about the measure passed by the council, which will provide $1.6 million of the $4.7 million that will be spent on the Technology Equalization Project over three years.
During the meeting, Ms. Pendergrass praised Mr. Gray for negotiating a compromise with County Executive Charles I. Ecker that made the project possible.
The compromise was worked out in May in an effort to restore money to the school system's budget request, which that Mr. Ecker had reduced.
Ms. Pendergrass said later that she would have preferred that the technology money had not been borrowed, but that she realized it was necessary to bring older schools up to par while fulfilling the agreement.
Councilman Charles C. Feaga, a Republican who represents west county, was also encouraged by the program's approval.
"I think that West Friendship Elementary and Bushy Park Elementary will all be pleased by this," Mr. Feaga said.
He said the program may discourage the school system from "overdoing" new schools with new gadgets.
"It should have been done with operating funds within the school system, but with the pressure from so many schools [for new technology], we needed to at least alert the school system to what they're doing," Mr. Feaga said.
The meeting was the start of the last legislative period for the council elected in 1990. Council members will also hold a routine public hearing on Oct. 17 and get a chance to make their farewells Oct. 24, the final legislative meeting before the Nov. 8 general election.