During a rare joint meeting yesterday, the Howard County Council and the county school board vowed to improve their strained relations, but they remain deeply divided about funding for schools.
"The school board does not want to bankrupt the county, and the council is not looking out to put students on the street," said school board member Stephen Bounds. "Somewhere in between we have to find a way to come together. Hopefully, we'll be able to do that in a less acrimonious fashion this year."
But the conflict between the board and the council about how much money the county can afford to spend on education is not likely to end soon -- and may even worsen as the two governing bodies struggle with their tight budgets for the next fiscal year.
The county financial situation is severe enough that one County Council member suggested yesterday that the county might forgo salary increases next fiscal year for all county and school employees.
Council members also indicated yesterday that they agree with County Executive Charles I. Ecker's warning last week that Howard government cannot afford to keep up with the state's "maintenance of effort" law next year.
The law requires county governments to spend at least as much per pupil as they spent the year before -- or else the county school systems would lose some matching state aid for education.
In Howard, that means Mr. Ecker must increase the county's education spending by about $6.6 million next year to keep up with projected enrollment growth -- or the school system would be out about $2.8 million in state funds.
The council and Mr. Ecker are supporting a state bill to reduce the maintenance-of-effort requirements. The bill -- which has been backed by school officials in some counties but not Howard -- calls for counties to increase their education funding by 60 percent of the amount currently required to cover new enrollment.
"From my perspective, it's an unfunded mandate," said council Chairman Darrel Drown. "You'll see us funding education and funding it at an appropriate level, but it is incumbent on us to get rid of this unfunded mandate."
Replied Mr. Bounds, who like other school board members favors the current maintenance-of-effort requirement, "We have 1,500 unfunded mandates coming in next year" to the school system in the form of new students.
If the law was changed, the county would have to increase its contribution to the schools next fiscal year by about $4 million instead of the $6.6 million needed to keep up with all of the schools' enrollment growth.
Superintendent Michael E. Hickey has described his proposed $241.9 million operating budget for next fiscal year as the "tightest budget" in his 12 years in Howard. He has said his proposal would provide only for new students and for the new schools scheduled to open in the fall.
County officials say Howard's revenues aren't projected to increase enough to cover those requested expenses -- along with rising costs for other services.
Costs associated with current maintenance-of-effort requirements, all county debt service and solid waste disposal would increase the county's budget next year by $13.6 million, but county revenues are projected to rise by just $9 million.
Mr. Ecker has proposed instituting a $125-per-household trash fee to raise more revenue, while cutting the property tax rate by 4 cents -- a combination that would raise an additional $4 million to $5 million in revenues for the county next fiscal year.
Yesterday, council members indicated they didn't support cutting the property tax rate, preferring to devote those funds to debt service.
"I'd rather hold [the rate] where it is rather than have to turn around next year and raise it again," said council member Charles C. Feaga.
Mr. Feaga also said he believed that no county or school employee should get a raise next year.
School officials have said they will try to fund any salary increases within their proposed budget, cutting elsewhere to be able to pay teachers and other employees.
With their tight budgets, county and school officials pledged yesterday to try to meet more often this year and thereafter and to avoid some of the acrimony of recent budget negotiations.
"We will be as civil as we can," Mr. Drown said.
Meanwhile, tax receipts through the first six months of the current fiscal year indicate that the county is not receiving as much money as officials predicted. The latest figures indicate the county's revenues will fall about $2.9 million short.
Budget administrator Raymond Wacks told the council later in the morning that Mr. Ecker has decided to leave some positions unfilled and cut departments' discretionary spending.
Mr. Wacks said the budget outlook for this fiscal year will depend on whether the county will have to clean up after another snowstorm.