No easy cuts in school budget Board is right to look for reductions that won't directly affect classroom programs.


IN ITS meeting last week, Anne Arundel's school board mad a very clear point: If $9 million must be trimmed to balance the education budget, it will not be in classroom-related programs.

Board members were able to find $5.8 million of acceptable cuts or fee increases. They must come up with $3.2 million more before July 1.

These "cuts" are not reductions from current spending. Instead, the school board is being asked to trim its projected spending for the next school year. This exercise will put the department's budget in line with the $454 million that County Executive John G. Gary and the County Council allocated for the next fiscal year.

Judging from suggestions at the 12-hour meeting, the board members are at sea. They want to realize substantial efficiencies by combining schools with too few students, but many of their suggestions can't be implemented before school begins in late August.

Merging Bates and Annapolis middle schools, both operating substantially below capacity, makes sense. But any merger will take months of planning and meetings to accomplish. The same goes for combining the county's two Centers of Applied Technology.

Since board members objected to a number of the 43 cuts that School Superintendent Carol S. Parham initially suggested, they should direct her to compile a list of $3.2 million in alternative cuts that meet their criteria. The superintendent and her lieutenants have intimate knowledge of the education budget. Board members should capitalize on this expertise rather than their own superficial knowledge.

All of these reductions, even those intended to have the least impact on the classrooms, will be felt. Some repairs will take months to complete, or won't be done at all. Some schools won't be cleaned often enough. As long as Anne Arundel's tax cap is in place, the school board can expect similar exercises in the future unless it works more closely with the county executive.

Hickey's skill

Howard County: During budget battle, school board got a lesson in what it must look for in successor.

THIS YEAR'S budget battle in Howard County again showed school Superintendent Michael E. Hickey's skill as a political operative.

For instance, Dr. Hickey disapproved of how some teachers involved students in the budget fight by giving them extra credit if they joined the protest. But he voiced his displeasure after the desired effect was achieved by having children beg the County Council for more school money.

This tactic worked. So did public discussion of draconian cuts -- unlikely to be approved by the school board -- to reduce spending to the level recommended by County Executive Charles I. Ecker.

The school board would have earned the public's wrath had it imposed fees on students playing sports or participating in other extracurricular activities. Just talking about such possibilities was enough to stir the indignation of parents. But their anger was directed at Mr. Ecker.

He and Dr. Hickey have sparred often during the superintendent's 14 years on the job. Mr. Ecker, who is running for the Republican nomination for governor, has been county executive since 1990.

Before that he was the assistant superintendent responsible for preparing the annual school system budget request.

Mr. Ecker's past budget disputes with Dr. Hickey occurred in the context of a poor economy. But Howard County is flush with revenue. The school system didn't get all it wanted, though the council improved Mr. Ecker's proposal, leading to an 8 percent spending increase.

When Dr. Hickey steps down in two years, it will be after 16 years at the helm. That's impressive in an era when most superintendents last one-third that long. It is also the same span of time his predecessor, M. Thomas Goedeke, held onto the job.

A search for a successor will begin this fall. Along with the other requisite academic and finance skills, the board must be on the lookout for someone with the political savvy to fight as effectively for schools as has Dr. Hickey.

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