Waging the most contentious schools fight in the Baltimore area, more than 800 people packed a hearing chamber in Ellicott City last night in an attempt to get more money for Howard County schools next year.
Most in the overflow crowd of angry parents, students and educators berated Howard County Executive Charles I. Ecker for a proposed budget that falls $9.2 million short of what school officials wanted -- and which they fear will damage what many believe is the area's best school system.
Last night, the people delivered a clear message to Ecker and the County Council: If they want their tax dollars spent on schools, do it.
"This has to affect the quality of the schools," Joan K. Lane, assistant principal at Centennial High School in Ellicott City, said of the budget cut. She marched at the entrance to the George Howard Building before the meeting with a sign reading, "Our Children Shouldn't Pay."
"It's really a shame because we're the leading educational institution in the state," she said. "We would like to keep and maintain that."
Ninety parents, students, teachers and school officials signed up to speak at the council hearing. Many parked a mile or more away, trudged through the rain and stood up during the hours-long session for a chance to be heard. By the noisy response, it was clear that most of the other people in the standing-room-only crowd were there to lend support for the cause. As of 11 p.m., the hearing was continuing.
Many had to watch the proceedings on television monitors set up in the lobby because there was no room for them in council chambers.
Students gave County Council members petitions signed by hundreds of students in support of the full budget that had been proposed by school officials.
"If you want us to make education our first priority, and I think you do, I would expect you to make it your first priority," said Rebecca Gifford, a junior at Columbia's Wilde Lake High who is the student representative to the Howard school board.
Anne T. Wisniewski, 34, the mother of two students at Worthington Elementary in Ellicott City, said, "We bought a house in Howard County for one reason -- the sterling reputation of the Howard County school system.
"If you prove your commitment to our schools by fully funding [the superintendent's] budget, our participation [as parents] will not change," she told the council. "If Dr. Ecker's unsatisfactory budget is approved, our addresses will have to."
Seeing the crowds, Superintendent Michael E. Hickey said before the hearing, "This is definitely sending the message we intended. It will be very difficult for anyone to say the voices they heard from the community want these cuts."
Ecker addressed the crowd before anyone else spoke, appearing at an education budget hearing for the first time in years. The crowd booed and hissed Ecker as he defended his $9.2 million reduction in the $204.8 million request made by school officials.
Ecker, a Republican, is running for governor.
"If they want to give me hell, here I am," Ecker said before the hearing, standing in the packed, steamy lobby. He called the school budget process "divisive" and said children were being "used as pawns" to further the wants of the school system.
Ecker and Republican members of the council -- who constitute a 3-2 majority -- have said the Department of Education wanted too much in seeking $34 million in capital spending, a 20 percent increase over current spending, and $204.8 million in the operating budget, a 10 percent increase.
Republicans charge that educators and Democrats have distorted the numbers to make political hay out of the funding cut. They point out that Ecker's budget gives schools $11 million more than the current year's spending plan -- a 6 percent increase that Ecker says is the highest proposed in the state.
Ecker's budget calls for a reduction in Howard's piggyback income tax rate from 50 percent to 48 percent, a cut that is backed by the council's Republican majority. The GOP members also have agreed to restore at least $1.4 million to the schools budget.
School officials and council Democrats argued that in a year when the county reported a $16 million budget surplus and Ecker has requested the cut in the piggyback tax rate, the funding requests should be approved.
Yesterday before the hearing, Democratic Councilman C. Vernon Gray also outlined a proposal to add $7 million to the school budget. It would ditch Ecker's tax cut, to save $2.1 million next year; cut $1.5 million in road resurfacing and other public works projects; take $650,000 out of contingency funds; and delay a $2.77 million plan to change the way the county counts its payroll.
Regardless of the outcome on the budgets, most of the requested increases would be consumed in keeping up with swelling enrollment. In the next decade, the school population is expected to grow by nearly 13 percent -- and by 3.6 percent next year alone.
The budget also would provide a 2.5 percent pay increase for teachers and a cluster of new programs intended to fight NTC problems creeping into the school system: students who struggle with reading, disruptive students and upgrades for older schools.
Hoping to overwhelm members of the County Council, activists pushing for full education funding aimed to get a big turnout for last night's hearing.
Last night, County Council Chairman Charles C. Feaga sparked thunderous applause at the start of the meeting when he said, "We didn't expect this large of a crowd, that's for sure."
The council and the school board will hold a work session Wednesday at 10 a.m., and the council will vote on the entire county budget May 26.
Pub Date: 5/08/98