Students, teachers and parents in Howard County are getting a lesson about politics in a place normally reserved for reading, writing and arithmetic.
And what they're learning, to the consternation of County Executive Charles I. Ecker, is that politicians listen when the school system rallies its supporters, even if some find the system's tactics heavy-handed.
Many schoolchildren were sent home last week with a new kind of homework assignment, to give their parents fliers warning of millions of dollars in possible spending cuts for education because of Ecker's proposed schools budget.
The fliers did not say that the specific cuts described -- such as losing some programs for gifted students,charging for sports participation and forcing children to walk farther to school or buses -- were suggested by school officials, not Ecker.
Students at Dunloggin Middle School were sent home with instructions to have their parents sign form letters complaining to the County Council and bring the letters back to school.
School and PTA officials used school automated dialing systems -- usually used for such tasks as calling parents when children are absent -- to encourage parents of about 3,300 students to contact the County Council or show up at a council public hearing last week to plead for more education spending.
And in at least two cases at one elementary school, children were told they would receive extra credit if they attended the Thursday public hearing to register their opposition to Ecker's budget.
Ecker, a Republican candidate for governor, says school officials went too far. After being criticized for three weeks on his $195.6 million schools budget, he is lashing back.
"I just think it's wrong," Ecker said this week. "They ought to take it out on me and not use kids as pawns in this thing."
Superintendent Michael E. Hickey, who was instrumental in rallying the school troops, agrees that giving extra credit was going too far. But he staunchly defends his lead role and the organized campaign by educators and PTA officials to use students to get the word out about the budget.
"I'm just taking defensive action that I think was precipitated by what they did in the first place," Hickey said. "We have teachers giving kids stuff for parents to sign and having them bring it back for things that are in my view much less important than this."
More than 800 parents, educators, students and politicians showed up at the County Council's public hearing. It was the largest crowd for a Howard government meeting in years,
perhaps decades. The meeting started at 7: 30 p.m. and a stream of witnesses testified about the need for more education dollars until shortly after 1 a.m.
Now, as the council prepares for a work session on the school budget this morning, four of its five members are ready to increase spending by millions of dollars. Some GOP activists, worried that the issue could become an election-year albatross for their candidates, hold out hope that Ecker and council Chairman Charles C. Feaga will join a growing Republican movement to give more money to the schools.
Political battle joined
Educators declared a war, and it looks as if they're going to win it.
It all started April 20, when Ecker proposed the $195.6 million schools budget as part of his $398 million county operating budget. That's $11 million more for schools than this year, a 6 percent increase, but it fell $9.2 million short of what school officials had requested.
Hickey launched the first volleys that day, complaining that after years of tight budgets, Ecker could have afforded to give the schools far more in this boom year, when the county has a $16 million surplus. He also railed against Ecker's proposal to cut the county's piggyback income tax from 50 percent of the state tax to 48 percent.
Hickey promised then that teachers, parents and students would make their case to the County Council, and he helped make that happen. He said he asked the 63 principals to spread the word of potential budget cuts and the public hearing to teachers, students and others.
By May 5, Hickey grew concerned that some supporters were getting "carried away," and sent an e-mail message to the principals advising them to tell staff members and parents to testify respectfully at the public hearing.
"We can get our message across most effectively without threatening and insulting statements that may come back to haunt us," Hickey wrote. "Thanks for all your help. The momentum is building."
Election spurs debate
It was also clear that election-year politics could give school officials added leverage. The two Democrats on the council -- Mary C. Lorsung and C. Vernon Gray -- called for more education spending and opposed Ecker's proposed tax cut. Democratic candidates for council jumped on board.
Two weeks ago at school headquarters, a phalanx of the county's leading Democrats held a news conference criticizing the Ecker budget. The next day, Feaga proposed adding $1.4 million to Ecker's budget, with the support of Ecker and Councilman Darrel E. Drown. But after Thursday's public hearing and pressure from fellow Republicans, Drown broke from Feaga to look for even more money for schools.
Now, the schools stand to win an increase ranging from perhaps $3 million to as much as $4.7 million, the figure that school officials say would pay for a growing enrollment and teacher raises.
But some Republicans complain that to win, educators crossed the line between public service and political advocacy on school campuses. Hickey insists he has played fair.
"It's the lifeblood of the school system that we're talking about, and I think we have an obligation as a matter of fact to let our constituency know what the consequences are of the political action that's being considered," Hickey said. "I didn't bring politics into it. It was the politicians themselves that did."
Pub Date: 5/13/98