Dennis R. Schrader, the Howard County Council member and Republican candidate for county executive, burst out laughing Thursday morning when he noticed a row of hand-marked red signs posted outside Fulton Elementary School.
"Education Budget Cuts," one sign read. "Contact County Council," read another.
Given that he was already hearing plenty from his constituents about the current education budget battle, his laugh was probably tinged with sarcasm.
But with Schrader, you can never tell. He doesn't always let people know what he's thinking, and it's that very quality that has landed him in the middle of a high-stakes debate fraught with political risks for him and the county GOP.
Does Schrader side with his Republican colleagues on the council, and risk angering parents and educators by giving the schools millions of dollars less than officials asked for in next year's budget? Or does he agree with Democrats to find more money for schools, breaking from Republican ranks?
How Schrader answers those questions could have a major impact on his Republican primary battle and, if he wins that, the general election for county executive.
That's likely one reason Schrader is taking his time deciding. "I'm still thinking," he said last week. "There's a lot of homework to do."
Mum on how he'll vote
Unlike his colleagues on the council, Schrader has said nothing about what he will do since April 20. That was the day County Executive Charles I. Ecker proposed, in his operating budget, to give Howard schools $9.2 million less than they requested.
Ecker proposed giving the schools $195.6 million, which would be $11 million more than the year before, a 6 percent increase. But as Schrader looked on quietly at a packed public hearing Thursday night, students, parents and teachers said that after years of tight budgets, Ecker could finally afford to give the schools enough money to start programs.
After all, they said, the county has a $16 million surplus, and Ecker found $2.1 million in his budget to cut the "piggyback" tax from 50 percent of the state income tax to 48 percent.
Ecker opposes new school
Complicating matters for Schrader, Ecker had already decided not to put money in the capital budget for planning a new high school, one that would serve students who live in Schrader's fast-growing district.
Two weeks until vote
In the next two weeks, Schrader must decide whether to give more money to the schools for new programs, and whether to put that high school back in the capital budget.
His colleagues have all but made up their minds: Republican Councilman Charles C. Feaga, Schrader's opponent in the county executive primary race, and Republican Councilman Darrel E. Drown support giving schools $1.4 million more but think the high school can wait; the two Democrats, C. Vernon Gray and Mary C. Lorsung, favor giving schools much more -- up to $7 million -- and support building the school.
Some might see Schrader's position, the potential swing vote on a politically divided council, as an opportunity to show leadership by forging a compromise.
Schrader, however, isn't comfortable in the middle.
'It's a very awkward position'
"I don't see getting 150 to 200 calls and getting beat up as a political opportunity," he said last week. "It's a very awkward position for me."
Political observers agree.
"He's in a very difficult spot, because he's got to win the Republican primary, and unfortunately, particularly in Howard County, the Republican primary is controlled by the conservative activists and the anti-tax crowd," said James B. Kraft, an attorney and president of the Columbia Democratic Club. "[But] if he wants to have a chance of winning the general election, he's got to support the education budget."
Politics a part of debate
Many of Schrader's fellow Republicans, trying to stop Democrats from making the budget battle a campaign issue, are wary of casting the councilman's decision in such blatantly political terms. They point out that no matter what Schrader decides, the schools will get a lot more money next year than they did this year.
Still, they acknowledge that politics is an inexorable part of the debate.
"Dennis looks at all the numbers, all the figures, all the statistics, weighs all the political considerations and acts in a deliberate manner," Drown said.
Consulting school officials
Educators insist they're not giving up on swaying other Republicans on the council, despite declarations by Feaga and Drown that they will not support an increase above $1.4 million. But of the Republicans, Schrader has been talking the most with school officials in recent days.
"Dennis is willing to meet with us and ask questions rather than point the finger and say, 'You're spending your money wrong,' " said school board member Sandra H. French. "I am definitely encouraged. I am hopeful."
Schrader may well vote to give schools more than his primary opponent Feaga's proposed $1.4 million increase.
But it's clear Schrader won't support giving the schools everything that educators and Democrats, including county executive candidate James N. Robey, would like. Schrader backs Ecker's piggyback tax cut, which the Democrats would kill to get $2.1 million of the $7 million they want for schools.
And if he strays too far from Feaga on spending, he risks a backlash from fiscal conservatives in the Republican primary.
"For the moment, we're at $1.4 [million]. I don't know where that might lead," Schrader said.
One thing is almost certain: Schrader says he doesn't expect to decide until near May 26, when the budgets are will be approved.
"All eyes are on Dennis," Drown said. "It'll be interesting to see how it shakes out."
Pub Date: 5/10/98