THE LARGEST EMPLOYER in Howard County has been forced to take austere fiscal measures in recent years. Although it has added employees and enlarged its budget to serve a rapidly expanding customer base, its spending generally has only kept pace with growth. There has been precious little investment in tackling new ventures or old challenges.
Now things are looking up for the employer, the Howard County public schools. Its major source of income, county government, is projecting its largest surplus this decade. Through the tough years, County Executive Charles I. Ecker worked to hold the school system to the state-mandated minimum increases, and even once threatened to go below that.
That isn't to suggest the Howard school system has been malnourished. It ranks second to neighboring Montgomery County in Maryland in per-pupil spending, with $6,256 for each of the 40,500 students in Howard public schools. But a county that prides itself on education quality cannot stand still indefinitely. The school board's proposed budget for fiscal 1999 contains $3 million for some important initiatives: A program to deal with disruptive pupils.
Changes to improve middle schools.
An effort to boost reading and programs for underachieving students.
The board has proposed a 2 percent raise for teachers. That should be the bare minimum for educators whose salaries once were among the highest in the state but would rank in the middle with the proposed raise.
The school board proposes to increase the next fiscal year's budget by 10 percent, from $253 million to $278 million. Mr. Ecker, a Republican gubernatorial candidate, says he is prepared to meet the board halfway and increase the budget by 5 percent.
The county errs if it commits to recurring programs based on a one-year cash spurt. Thus, the 10 percent proposal may be too high. But the executive's 5 percent figure may be too low: If the county only treads water and fails to address problems of discipline, middle schools and at-risk students that have been the grist for endless debate, the system runs the risk of sliding backward. If Howard can't afford to remedy some of these ills now, then when?
Pub Date: 3/10/98