Controls on spending sought School budget disputes lead Balto. Co. officials to rethink money shuffling


In the aftermath of recent school budget squabbles, the Baltimore County Council and County Executive C. A. Dutch Ruppersberger III are moving to seek more education spending oversight.

Together, they are working on state legislation that would restrict school officials' shuffling money within the budget -- a move that follows a statewide trend in which local governments hold schools more accountable for how tax dollars are spent. The proposals also would give county elected officials the power to ZTC call for locally controlled performance audits of school operations.

"This is not about the council wanting to affect education policy through the budget," said Councilman Kevin B. Kamenetz, "but making the school spending more accountable to the taxpayers."

But the county school board president, Calvin D. Disney, said that while the board would be willing to discuss the proposals, they are "potentially dangerous."

Although school budget flaps are a yearly affair, tensions were heightened this year when school officials decided to fund an estimated $10 million in combined cuts made by the council and executive.

And school officials' decision to hold spending down 25 percent at each school to make up for the deficit was seen by the council as a pressure tactic to force approval of supplemental appropriations.

As public education is a state function according to the Maryland Constitution, changes in the school budget process even on the local level must be approved by the legislature.

House Speaker Casper R. Taylor Jr. and the Maryland Association of Counties are looking at new laws in these areas.

County officials, seeking more control over the school budget, are considering a proposal expanding the number of budget subcategories. For example, the large category of instruction would be broken down into areas such as elementary, secondary, special education, textbooks and supplies.

The council must approve budget transfers between categories but has no say over the movement of funds between subcategories or from one line item to another. The MACO proposal would change state law to require approval of transfer of funds between subcategories.

"We haven't made a decision on whether we want to go as far as the MACO proposal in this area because of the concern over micro-managing," said Council Chairman Vincent J. Gardina.

In the area of mandated school budget performance audits, county officials want that done locally, not on the state level as in the MACO and Taylor proposals.

Mr. Disney said the board is willing to discuss such important areas "in a way that is in the best interest of the children and the taxpayers who pay for public education."

But he also said the present system, with its checks and balances over the school budget, has worked well for 75 years.

el,.5l "That system was crafted specifically to take partisan politics out of the budget and the day-to-day management of the school system. I'm afraid these proposals could take us down the wrong road and that is very dangerous."

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