Stake out your seats early. Be prepared for long lines. Parking is going to be tight, so better arrange a car pool.
A hearing tonight at the George Howard Building in Ellicott City is expected to be the most crowded local government meeting in years: Weeks of discussion among politicians, parents and school officials have stoked a dispute over school spending into an election-year conflagration.
Parents, teachers and nearly every school-based PTA have gotten in on the action, circulating mass e-mails, distributing fliers, placing hundreds of phone calls and using computers to make many automated calls. The aim: to get members of Howard's County Council to restore millions of dollars to the proposed school budgets.
"I think it's going to be a very, very large attendance, more than the chambers can hold," said Michael E. Hickey, school superintendent. "People will be there to send a message."
Said Patti Caplan, a spokeswoman for the school system, "This is pretty much the wildest [budget process] we've had in a long while."
The ruckus comes in response to spending plans released last month by County Executive Charles I. Ecker -- a $128.3 million capital budget and a $398 million operating budget -- that are dominated by school funding.
Both proposals fell short of amounts requested by school officials. Because the County Council has the power to add dollars to Ecker's proposed budgets, many in the school community are prepared to make their voices heard.
The issue, which arises annually, is particularly heated this year because a flood of county revenue has created a $16 million budget surplus and spurred a 4 percent drop in the county's piggyback tax.
School crowding an issue
Particularly at issue is the operating budget. Though almost half of its total -- $195.6 million -- is designated for schools, that is still about $9.2 million less than school officials requested.
Ecker's planned 6 percent increase in school operating spending over this year's budget would pay for at least part of an agreed-upon plan to raise teacher pay and help accommodate about 1,500 new students -- a 3.6 percent growth in the 41,500-student school system.
But, school officials say, Ecker's plan would not pay for new programs they had hoped to implement.
"I have a feeling people have been pushed to the limit," said Karen Douglas, parent of two teen-agers at Wilde Lake High School.
"During the seven years of tough times, we knew education would not be funded the way we wanted. But now, to be continually told that they can't fund the education budget -- it's just too much to take," she said. "Especially in the face of a tax cut. Come on."
A partisan issue
Democrats have escalated the debate into a ballot-box issue in a year when they see an opportunity to regain the county executive's seat and a majority on the County Council. Democrats gathered Monday to assail the Republican record on education spending this decade, warning that Howard's cherished schools reputation could soon be tarnished.
Republicans countered that Democrats are distorting numbers and exploiting schoolchildren to score political points. Some Republicans claim school officials are spreading misinformation. Ecker mentioned an unconfirmed rumor that teachers at one school were telling their students they couldn't turn their computers on because the county government was cutting the budget.
"They're trying to stir up the troops," said Republican Councilman Darrel E. Drown.
Schrader the swing vote
The result expected tonight is a packed meeting with standing-room-only space outside the 375-capacity Banneker Room.
A line of those wishing to speak is expected to form before 7 p.m., when sign-up sheets will be available. The meeting begins at 7: 30. There will be a television monitor in the foyer for those not able to find seats.
State's highest increase
Even Ecker may attend, he said, to defend his budget recommendation. He says his proposed 6 percent increase in the school operating budget is the highest recommended by any county executive in the state.
The target for all sides is Republican Councilman Dennis R. Schrader, the county executive hopeful who, simply by not saying much, has positioned himself as the swing vote on the issue. The council will vote on the budgets May 26.
On one side, Drown and Republican Councilman Charles C. Feaga have endorsed adding $1.385 million to Ecker's school operating budget. On the other side, two Democratic council members say they want up to $7.5 million more than Ecker's budget. Schrader is almost certain to fall somewhere in the middle, but likely closer to the Republican figure.
School activists throughout the county are fighting to sway Schrader and the rest of the council.
Group passes petition
About two dozen volunteers in the Clarksville area have formed an organization -- Citizens for Quality Education -- that has staged a petition drive to get the school funding restored.
This week, the Howard County PTA endorsed the petition, which already has hundreds of signatures after canvassing at Columbia's village centers and other shopping centers in the county, said Steven D. Sass, a spokesman for the group.
CQE was formed several weeks ago in response to Ecker's proposed capital budget, which cut planning funds and long-range construction money for a new high school in the Fulton area to relieve swelling enrollment.
The cut in the proposed operating budget has since "caused a ripple effect throughout the county," Sass said.
Students get involved
High school students -- organized through a civics course run by three Columbia synagogues -- also are working with CQE.
"There is so much overcrowding at Hammond," said one of the students, Jessica Bricker, who is a senior at Hammond High School. "They just built an addition for the freshmen, but already it's not big enough. There really shouldn't be as many students in some of my classes as there are."
There will probably be no answers for the crowd at tonight's meeting on any of the issues.
Schrader -- the man in the middle on both the new high school and the operating budget -- is not likely to commit himself.
"We've got three weeks here," he said. "I'm just, at this point, studying the numbers."
The George Howard Building is at 3430 Court House Drive in Ellicott City.
Operating budgets requested by school officials, and amounts approved by the County Council, during County Executive Charles I. Ecker's tenure:
Year .. .. Requested .. .. Approved
91-92 . .. .. $146.2 .. .. $138.5
92-93 . .. .. $143 . .. .. $140.5
93-94 . .. .. $154.9 .. .. $150.4
94-95 . .. .. $166.7 .. .. $162.3
95-96 . .. .. $175.2 .. .. $170.8
96-97 . .. .. $177.4 .. .. $177.4
97-98 . .. .. $185.9 .. .. $184.6
98-99 . .. .. $204.8 .. .. $197 *
Amounts in millions of dollars. * Fiscal year starts July 1. The 1998-99 schools operating budget isn't final, but the figure listed is expected to be the minimum the County Council approves.
Pub Date: 5/07/98