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An characteristic peace Harmony on school budget front, or just a calm before yearly storm?


IN A RARE MOMENT of harmony, Howard County Executive Charles I. Ecker and county school Superintendent Michael E. Hickey have reached some degree of accord as they approach another budget season. In public statements and policy decisions alike, the two leaders, whose professional relationship has long been acrimonious, seem to be moving closer.

For his part, Dr. Hickey has warned the school board that the coming year sees a bank of financial clouds on the horizon that could prevent the system from embarking on new programs. This was a marked -- and welcome -- departure from previous years when school officials seemed oblivious to any financial hardships confronting the jurisdiction.

Meanwhile, Mr. Ecker has backed away from two controversial bills he planned to submit to the General Assembly for the coming session. The bills would have given the county executive greater direct control over the school budget.

Mr. Ecker said he decided to drop the proposals following a recent discussion with Dr. Hickey that he described as "very good." In the past, Mr. Ecker, a former educator and financial officer for the schools himself, has proposed state legislation designed to impose his will on school system funding, but always to no avail. Perhaps the recent rhetoric portends a more rational approach to education funding.

Should the battle with school officials heat up again, one might expect Mr. Ecker to play his trump card. The executive says he supports three bills being drafted by House Speaker Casper R. Taylor Jr. that would solve some of his local problems.

Ironically, the state association of school superintendents supports two of those measures: one that would allow management audits of school boards by the state education department and another allowing one-time-only increases in school funding above the state-mandated maintenance-of-effort level. A third measure, which would strengthen county councils' control over how school officials shift resources, does not have the association's support.

If that's the only remaining bone of contention, residents may be in for a budget season that is less stressful than usual, which would benefit all concerned.

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