THIS IS usually the time when the next year's budget preoccupies county government, but this year, the budget itself may become a side show.
A tiff between County Executive John G. Gary and school Superintendent Carol S. Parham has temporarily pushed the normal budget controversies out of the center ring.
For three years, relations between Mr. Gary and Dr. Parham -- particularly on budgetary matters -- have been exceedingly smooth.
Dr. Parham appeared to understand Mr. Gary's obsession with fiscal restraint.
Regardless of whether times are bad, as they were in the first two years of his administration, or flush, as they are now, Mr. Gary's goal has been to spend money very carefully and efficiently.
Dr. Parham's budgets were carefully tailored to meet Mr. Gary's approval.
Villains and hero
In each of those years, the school board piled on more requests, adding millions to the school budget. In Mr. Gary's mind, the board was the villain, and Dr. Parham was the hero.
Mr. Gary obsesses over the school budget because it is so large and he has relatively little control over it.
Elementary and secondary education traditionally consumes about 45 percent of the county's operating budget. Next year, out of an operating budget of $698.6 million, the Board of Education will receive $300.7 million, or about 43 percent.
Earlier this year, Mr. Gary and his budget officials gave the school board a heads up that it could expect $10 million to $12 million added to its budget.
When Dr. Parham's budget, submitted by the school board, called for $52 million increase, Mr. Gary felt betrayed.
He expected her to follow the pattern of previous years.
When Mr. Gary was presented two months ago with an education budget that called for increases five times greater than what he thought the county could afford, he lost control.
First, he could not understand how Dr. Parham could have submitted such an extravagant budget after three years of restraint.
Dr. Parham's payback?
In his mind, only one reason could explain the inexplicable: Dr. Parham caved in to the school board's excessive requests as payback for renewing her contract earlier in the year.
He blurted this out in an interview with The Sun.
He ignored the fact that Dr. Parham had told the board and others earlier in the year that she would ask for substantial increases. She reasoned that the county was in good shape financially.
After years of scrimping, she felt the time had come to invest more money in the school system. She believed that if Anne Arundel's schools were being compared to those in Montgomery and Howard counties, more money was needed to cover the cost of improving test scores.
Had Mr. Gary restrained himself, his arguments on behalf of his education budget would have likely prevailed. Instead, he crafted his own destruction.
Earlier this year, he asked the school board to assemble itspriorities.
First on its list of "must have items" was financing a 27th pay week.
In the coming fiscal year, there would be 27 biweekly pay periods. Mr. Gary's suggested to the education department that it divide its employees' pay by 27, rather than try to add another week of pay to their checks. "They are paid by the year, not the pay period," Mr. Gary told The Sun.
The school board's other priority items included alloting an extra day's pay for teachers, financing nonprofessionals for hall duty and increasing the mileage reimbursement.
As Mr. Gary pointed out, the school board proposed spending close to $34 million in taxpayer money without adding one more teacher to classrooms.
The budget Mr. Gary submitted to the council increases the education budget $9.6 million, which includes money for more teachers and textbooks. He considers those the appropriate priority items. He also included more for school construction and repairs in the capital budget.
Had Mr. Gary restricted his arguments to the budget, he would have controlled the political high ground.
Instead, his anger got the best of him. Whenever that happens, Mr. Gary tends to say things he regrets. This is almost a repetition of his ill-tempered remarks about Circuit Court Judge Clayton R. Greene Jr.'s refusal to be dragged into the controversy over the handling of seized automobiles.
Relations between him and Dr. Parham are now as frosty as they are between Gov. Parris N. Glendening and Baltimore Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke.
Mr. Gary and Dr. Parham will eventually reconcile. Mr. Gary will probably have to take the initiative, but don't expect it to happen this budget season.
Brian Sullam is The Sun's editorial writer in Anne Arundel County.
Pub Date: 5/10/98