Emotions still cloud school budget process Annual fight: Rhetoric especially heated as educators believe this year's windfall belongs to education.


EMOTION often creeps into the debate about education spending in Maryland. That's understandable when considering the future of youngsters and their communities. But the debate has reached new lows this year, with discussions about spending money to fix or build schools being cast as "anti-child" by teachers seeking raises.

This week, the Teachers Association of Anne Arundel County, annoyed that County Executive John G. Gary wants to spend money on school construction rather than pay raises, voiced that absurd notion in ads in The Sunday Capital in Annapolis and The Sun.

The ad, headlined "And the Children will Suffer," had a caricature ofMr. Gary, with his shock of snowy hair, spanking a crying child. To believe the union, his proposed budget for fiscal year 1999 will force kids to return to the days of hand-held chalkboards and sit, half-frozen, around pot-bellied stoves next winter.

In fact, the executive has proposed giving Anne Arundel schools $14.7 million more than this year's operating budget; another $3.5 million is being negotiated. That exceeds by at least $10 million what state law says Anne Arundel County must give schools to maintain current services. It includes money for 41 new teachers. On top of that, Mr. Gary proposed $16 million for one-time expenditures on school construction and maintenance.

But his allocation paled next to the 14-percent increase the school board wanted: $61 million. That would be an outlandish increase even in a good year such as this one, considering that the county only took in $54 million in new money for fiscal year 1999.

These local budget battles are nothing new in Maryland, where some of the nation's largest school systems geographically neither raise their own tax revenues nor petition voters for bond issues, but, instead, receive allocations from county government:

In Howard County, hundreds of residents packed council chambers to support the schools' request for an 11-percent increase. Howard Executive Charles I. Ecker, who must not relish the political strife at home while he's working to build a statewide name to run for governor, proposed 6 percent.

In Baltimore, Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke's proposed budget holds school funding flat, outraging school board members.

Carroll and Harford counties, though virtually free of school budget acrimony this year, have seen plenty in the past. The Carroll commissioners took heat a few years ago for increasing the tax rate to produce more aid for education.

And Harford County paid $270,000 to rid itself of Superintendent FTC Jeffery N. Grotsky after only two years, an expensive buyout that was supported nevertheless by politicians, including Executive Eileen M. Rehrmann, who had numerous budget disputes with the former school chief.

Education must be a top priority. It is in most Baltimore-area jurisdictions, where education typically consumes 50 to 60 percent of general fund expenditures. But because schools are important doesn't mean they should receive carte blanche.

Certain expenditures have a direct impact on children -- safe, sound school facilities, sufficient equipment, extra teachers to reduce class size. Other items merit strenuous questioning: How many school administrators does a system need? What kind of computers should students have, and how many? How much is an equitable, affordable raise for teachers?

School systems and local governments should be partners, not enemies, in examining these questions.

That is happening this year in Baltimore County, where Superintendent Anthony G. Marchione understands that his school system has more to gain by cooperating with County Executive C. A. Dutch Ruppersberger.

Dr. Marchione made a reasonable request this year and took criticism for doing so from colleagues who felt that he should have asked for much more. In the end, Mr. Ruppersberger offered $1 million more than the system requested, plus $38 million in one-time cash for construction and maintenance.

Recent history shows that pumping millions of dollars into ongoing expenses, including pay raises and new programs, causes severe problems when the economy slows. Government's responsibility to weigh carefully how it spends public dollars extends to education, just as it does to every public service.

Maintenance of effort

Jurisdiction ............ Minimum .......... Proposed

......................... required ......... fiscal 1999

Anne Arundel County ..... $451 million ..... $461 million

Baltimore City .......... $194 million ..... $197 million

Baltimore County ........ $429 million ..... $437 million

Carroll County .......... $84 million ...... $87 million

Harford County .......... $112 million ..... $114 million

Howard County ........... $192 million ..... $196 million

SOURCE: Public school systems

Pub Date: 5/14/98

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