For more than four years, as Republican County Executive Charles I. Ecker wielded a conservative fiscal ax, the Howard County school system has been able to weather the worst of his proposed budget cuts.
That's because a Democratic County Council invariably would step in to soften the blow.
But that's not necessarily the scenario apt to unfold this year, and school officials are bracing to absorb cuts that could produce a real pinch in the classroom.
With a Republican-dominated council whose leadership tends to walk in lock step with Mr. Ecker, chances are scant that the school system will receive more money than the county executive is proposing for the 1995-'96 school year.
Council Chairman Charles C. Feaga, a strong critic of school system spending habits, is highly unlikely to shift positions. Republican Darrel Drown is also unlikely to go to bat for the school administration.
The only wild card in the deck is Republican Dennis Schrader. He is said to be spending a great deal of time over at school system headquarters reviewing the budget. But Mr. Schrader may not be willing to buck his party colleagues as a freshman member of the council.
"It doesn't look very good," admits Superintendent Michael E. Hickey, who expects the program cuts to be significant.
Mr. Ecker's budget calls for $170.8 million for the school system -- $8.5 million more than the current year. But it is also $4.5 million less than the system requested.
There is always a certain high drama that attends budget deliberations at this point each spring.
School officials are already pointing to textbook purchases and maintenance as areas for likely retrenchment. These are items where threats of cuts are likely to evoke a rise out of parents, who in turn ratchet up the pressure on the County Council.
How truly painful will be the repercussions won't be known, however, until school officials zero in on them. No one wants to see county pupils deprived of a clean place to learn or forced to use outdated texts. But school officials have yet to prove that such dire ends will result because of these cuts.
Countians should be more alarmed about the prospect of Mr. Ecker's proposed capital budget, which could force even greater austerity from the school system in the long run than next year's operating budget.
Mr. Ecker is proposing $9.5 million less than school officials asked for. And he has sworn that any additional funding from the state to the schools will only offset the county's contribution.
For a system growing as rapidly as Howard County's -- with 1,800 new students to join the current 36,000-member student body next year -- the school construction program may have to undergo radical revisions.
Having given up on the notion that the system can build "cheaper" schools, Mr. Ecker and some council members are pushing the idea that new schools can be smaller and still do the same job.
Mr. Ecker is allowing school officials to work out how they spend the capital budget, but he's also ordered them to do so without eliminating projects or limiting the number of new seats created. That probably means reducing the size of new buildings, which sounds fine when you consider that recent school construction has produced some outsized Taj Mahals of educational splendor.
The problem, school officials contend, is that smaller buildings -- which translate to smaller auditoriums, smaller gyms and smaller classrooms -- change the kind of program a school can offer.
And once you build a new building, you're stuck with it. Unless, of course, you're willing to accept the idea of massive renovations down the line, which are often more costly than the original project.
Mr. Ecker, who isn't above playing politics, will probably escape any tremendous fallout from these budget decisions.
One, by prohibiting school officials from eliminating any planned new schools, he is unlikely to face serious criticism from constituents.
Two, the public's memory being what it is, it is unlikely that a decade from now these smaller, inadequate schools will be remembered as the legacy of Chuck Ecker, whose background, ironically, is in education.
But that is what they will be as thousands of students down the line bear the brunt of the county executive's vision now.
Kevin Thomas is The Baltimore Sun's editorial writer in Howard County.