Ecker seeks more control over education spending


In meetings this week, Howard County Executive Charles I. Ecker is trying to convince state lawmakers to give him more control over how the county spends money on education.

Mr. Ecker wants new laws allowing the county to audit the school system -- and prohibiting anyone from restoring cuts he makes in the school budget.

Now, Mr. Ecker's control over school spending is limited to making broad cuts in the budget written by the Board of Education. But the five-member County Council can restore those cuts.

"There's a perception that the boards of education are not as accountable -- across the state -- as county government or state government," Mr. Ecker said.

When asked if the perception was true, he said, "Perception is reality."

But Susan Cook, chairwoman of the Howard County Board of Education, said Mr. Ecker is trying to grab too much power. "I see the possibility of horrible things happening," she said. "What if a county executive does not support public education? What if a county executive has a personal vendetta or a philosophical vendetta?"

She said the school board is elected and should be accountable to voters, not the county executive.

In Howard County, the five-member school board submits the education budget -- about $171 million this year -- to the county executive. The executive can then make broad cuts before sending the budget to the County Council. This year, Mr. Ecker trimmed about $4 million.

Mr. Ecker, a Republican, generally has a good relationship with the Republican-dominated Coun- ty Council, and they kept the cuts. But Mr. Ecker said he doesn't want to count on the council siding with him in the future. Democratic council member C. Vernon Gray has said he will oppose an effort to strip the council of its power to restore education cuts.

This week and next, Mr. Ecker said, he is meeting with state lawmakers to seek the change. To get his way, he must win a vote of the 11 state lawmakers who represent parts of Howard County. Early reaction to his plan was mixed.

Del. Elizabeth Bobo, a Columbia Democrat, said the proposal could upset a needed balance of power. "My initial reaction is that it has worked well the way it is," she said.

Del. Robert L. Flanagan, a Columbia Republican, said he supports measures to curb school boards' spending authority but said more fundamental change may be needed, such as allowing the arm of government that collects taxes also to be the arm that writes education budgets.

Mr. Ecker also would like the county government to have the authority to conduct performance audits of the school system. But Ms. Cook said the Department of Education -- which, unlike county auditors, is experienced in education performance -- already conducts performance audits.

"I would take great exception to having one politician assessing another elected official's performance," she said.

Mr. Ecker also is watching legislation proposed in Annapolis by House Speaker Casper R. Taylor Jr. that would change the categories in board of education budgets. Mr. Ecker said he would support the bill if it increases the number of categories, thus enabling him to make more specific cuts.

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