BOY, SEEING the Howard County budget approved for the next fiscal year provided quite an education. County Executive Chuck Ecker tried to reflect both the bounty that the nation is experiencing via the bull stock market and the fiscal caution that has become his trademark.
Mr. Ecker proposed a modest cut in the local income tax rate.
But he also stressed using the current increase in income tax revenue on one-time expenditures -- "pay-go" projects -- rather than on recurring expenses. After all, no one knows when another recession will erupt.
Mr. Ecker increased funding for the county schools, but he stopped well short of what education officials said they needed to offset inadequate budgets in lean years.
I didn't understand it.
On the one hand, Mr. Ecker -- who is running for governor -- appeared to curry favor with Howard voters by giving them a tax cut.
On the other hand, he risked voter dissatisfaction by shortchanging schools.
Even more difficult to comprehend was the Republican majority on the County Council. It added more money to the schools' budget than Mr. Ecker proposed, but wouldn't give the schools what they needed. This despite the school board's being able to justify each proposed expenditure.
Such recalcitrance seemed quite a gamble for council members Charlie Feaga and Dennis Schrader, who are vying for the Republican nomination to succeed Mr. Ecker.
Even with hundreds of parents showing up at a hearing to protest their miserliness, neither Mr. Feaga, Mr. Schrader nor fellow Republican council member Darrel Drown would agree to give the schools even half of the additional $9 million they sought.
I didn't understand it.
That is, until I heard that the trio was claiming that Howard has more families without school-age children than with them.
Could it be that the Republican council members and Mr. Ecker see themselves as representatives of a silent majority of taxpayers who think enough of their money already goes to public education?
Could it be that they expect that silent majority to have more to jTC say at the polls than all those placard-waving parents, students and teachers who raised Cain for more money for schools?
The county planning department has the latest Census data on families. It shows Howard with 22,802 married couples with children, 3,178 female heads of households with children and 813 male heads of households with children. The same report shows Howard with 20,903 married couples without children, 2,631 female heads of households without children, and 905 male heads of households without children.
Add those numbers and you come up with 26,793 families with children and 24,439 families without. But then you have to add to the without-children mix 17,425 households (single people, roommates, etc.) not considered families by the Census Bureau.
This means -- despite all the families with children we see -- that they are indeed the minority.
I hope, though, for the county's sake that people without children care about the local schools. If they don't, Mr. Ecker and the council ought to be preaching a different sermon to the congregation they have claimed.
Learning the hard way
I'm from Alabama, which has had to learn the hard way that good schools are the engine that promotes economic development, less crime and a better quality of life.
Alabama is beautiful, with more navigable streams than almost any other state, the foothills of the Appalachian Mountains to the north and the white-sand beaches of the Gulf of Mexico to the south. It has abundant natural resources, right-to-work laws that keep wages (ahem) "competitive," and a government that since 1948 has never blinked at offering lucrative tax breaks to companies looking for a new location.
A lot of companies have come to Alabama, but it has lost out to other states just as often because of the inconsistent quality of its schools. Companies want good schools that can produce the highly skilled workers they need. Employees want good schools for their children.
Good schools get children and their families involved in activities that keep neighborhoods clean and safe. Good schools help children steer away from lifestyles that eventually make them burdens, not contributors, to society.
Education is so important to the vitality of a community.
It seems ludicrous that anyone who thinks clearly wouldn't want to give the schools whatever can be afforded to help them do an even better job. Howard County can afford more this year than it is giving its schools.
Some politicians apparently think a tax break of $51 a year per taxpayer will get them more votes than campaigning on a record that shows their unquestioned support of good schools.
It's an interesting theory, but if I were running for office I wouldn't want to test it.
Harold Jackson writes editorials about Howard County for The Sun.
Pub Date: 5/31/98