WHEN DOLLARS were short a few years ago, setting the county's education budget was a relatively amicable process.
Now, ironically, though Anne Arundel County anticipates record revenues in the next fiscal year, the school budget is creating divisions in government that may not heal.
County Executive John G. Gary has never liked the Board of Education's autonomy.
He believes that school members are well-meaning volunteers who should not be running a multimillion dollar education system that consumes close to half the county budget.
Since taking office in 1994, Mr. Gary has wanted to assume control of the school system's noneducational spending, from construction to payroll.
He has used his bully pulpit to highlight school system deficiencies, but he has not succeeded in wresting control of these items.
Concerned about protecting its turf and afraid of Mr. Gary's intentions, the school board has resisted his efforts.
This spring, Mr. Gary has decided to become even more involved in education by tearing up the budget he received from the board.
John Gary's agenda
Mr. Gary refused to provide money for teacher raises, increases in health insurance premiums and an additional pay cycle, all considered priorities by the board. He included money to build an elementary school in Mayo, which no one requested, and to hire additional classroom teachers.
Mr. Gary also blasted Superintendent Carol S. Parham for "caving into" the school board's extravagant budget request. Dr. Parham was doing the board's bidding as a favor for renewing her contract, he charged.
In the meantime, the Teachers' Association of Anne Arundel County purchased a series of newspaper advertisements featuring the slogan, "Stack 'em deep and teach 'em cheap." The teachers' union has promoted the notion that Mr. Gary has savaged the education budget for his "pet" projects.
How much is needed?
Lost in the rhetoric is a simple question: How much money is needed to maintain the system and accommodate the expected growth in students?
The school board believes that an increase of $19 million is necessary.
Mr. Gary says that $17.5 million is sufficient.
This dispute is more than just a numbers game, though. It is also about how best to spend scarce education dollars.
The public has heard a great deal of self-serving talk. It has yet to hear a robust and rational debate about the system's needs and priorities.
If Anne Arundel is to continue thriving, it needs an a top-flight education system. So far, the county has been able to maintain its commendable performance, but will continued scrimping catch up with the system?
The teachers union makes a valid point that education spending has dropped as a proportion of the budget.
In previous years, it was about 47 percent of the operating budget. Next year, the percentage proposed for schools drops to 43 percent.
Anyone who doubts the importance of the education system to the health of the county only has to look at the differences between Montgomery County, which lavishes money on its school system, and neighboring Prince George's, which has been forced to cut back as the result of its tax cap.
Good business climate
Low taxes are not the only ingredient of a good business climate. Businesses tend to move into and grow in jurisdictions with good schools and graduates filling their needs.
Anne Arundel is attracting dozens of new businesses, creating a great demand for employees.
Can county schools continue to produce graduates with the skills these employers want? Is the county offering a challenging program that will allow graduates to succeed in college?
Is more money needed to hire additional remedial reading teachers to work with students whose performance is lagging? Are there sufficient teachers and staff to handle the county's pTC special education students? Do the schools have sufficient counselors to handle normal guidance activities as well as discipline problems?
Rather than continue hurling charges at each other, it would be much more productive if the school board, superintendent, county executive and County Council began addressing some of these important and relevant questions.
Brian Sullam is The Sun's editorial writer in Anne Arundel County.
Pub Date: 5/31/98