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School budget battle heats up Democrats criticize Ecker and council on spending priorities


Howard County Democratic elected officials used a news conference yesterday to blast the Republican-controlled County Council for failing to restore funding to requested school board operating budgets in each of the last three years.

The attacks come as the council prepares to consider this year's school operating budget submitted by Republican County Executive Charles I. Ecker. It gives school officials $9.2 million less than they had requested.

"We're talking about our children," said C. Vernon Gray, a Democrat from east Columbia. "We need to give them the skills they need to compete. Just because of the actions of our County Council doesn't mean we need to limp into the 21st century."

The Democratic officials complained about what they called a waning commitment to education by the county executive and County Council, saying it has caused county schools to deteriorate and is affecting the business climate in the county.

The news conference at Board of Education headquarters came in the midst of the most contentious school budget season in recent memory as officials and parents mobilized to fight Ecker's proposed budget.

The issue surfaced last month when Ecker released a county operating budget of $398 million. About 52 percent was earmarked for school funding. If approved, it would be an increase of about 7 percent over this year's school budget -- enough to pay for negotiated teacher raises, but not, school officials say, enough to fund a variety of programs they had hoped to implement.

"My budget proposal to the County Council is adequate, responsible and realistic," Ecker said yesterday. "That is one of the highest percentage increases in any county budget in the region."

The County Council, which has the power to restore cuts in education funding, will hear public testimony on Ecker's proposed budget Thursday and will vote on a final version May 26.

Although the council once routinely restored education funds to the budget, for the past three years the Republican-controlled body has not. Democrats say that trend is eroding the school system and the reputation of the county as a whole.

"The current administration, both the [state legislative] delegation and County Council, take a lot of pride in the economic development program in the county, and they continue to list an excellent school system as a main draw," said Del. Elizabeth Bobo, a Columbia Democrat, standing in a circle of legislators and about a dozen school officials in the Department of Education lobby.

"It's just an all-around loss if we [make these cuts]," she said. "Everyone loses and no one wins."

Del. Shane Pendergrass, a Democrat, said in an interview, "You see a clear Republican trend. This is important for people to understand if they value education."

But Charles C. Feaga, a Republican from western Howard and chairman of the County Council, called education funding "liberal," adding that overly generous spending in past years contributed to a budget deficit.

"They [school officials] simply are not handling the dollars properly," he said. "We're certainly all pro-education, but I don't think they look at the whole picture."

Last week, Feaga announced that he would support returning about $1.3 million to the proposed budget -- a figure Gray called "a paltry sum." Gray calls for a $7.5 million restoration.

If approved, Ecker's budget also would provide for a cut in the county's piggyback tax -- from 50 percent of the state income tax to 48 percent -- that would reduce county revenues by $2.1 million next year and $5.5 million when it is in effect for the full year in 2000.

At yesterday's news conference, Democratic county officials criticized the tax cut as a political move designed to help Ecker, who is running for governor, at the expense of the schools.

"If the executive thinks he's getting some kind of political gain from this tax cut," said Gray, "it's certainly being offset by these cuts in the education budget."

Gray and council member Mary C. Lorsung, a Democrat from west Columbia, have said they oppose the cut.

School officials have said that their proposed budget would do little to make up for years of under-funding in an era of dramatic enrollment growth. They stress that the changing needs of the school system -- among them, a push to improve reading, curb disruptive student behavior and reform middle schools -- demand higher levels of funding.

Last week, they said they might force students to pay for athletic participation and walk longer distances to bus stops to make up for the funding gap. Ecker said yesterday that those proposals were contrived to frighten parents into fighting for more school funds.

"No other agency in the county has the opportunity to go to the County Council and cry wolf and say, like Chicken Little, 'The sky is falling,' " Ecker said. "They're saying these things to incite the public."

Throughout the county, PTAs and other parent groups are mobilizing to fight for more money. Many have passed out fliers, sent letters home with students and posted mass e-mails to encourage participation at Thursday's public hearing on the budget.

School officials expect "an incredible turnout," said Patti Caplan, a spokesman for Howard schools.

Such passion surrounding a budget proposal has not been seen for years, said David S. White, budget officer for Howard schools.

"This is unusual, to say the least," he said.

Pub Date: 5/05/98

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