THREE MONTHS ago, Anne Arundel County Executive John G. Gary insisted that the Board of Education's $454 million allocation was sufficient to operate the schools.
Yet last Monday, he appeared before the County Council seeking an emergency supplemental budget request of nearly $6 million to ensure that students won't be hurt by cuts to the Board of Education's budget proposal.
Is this the same John Gary who has championed fiscal frugality during his term as county executive? The same John Gary who accuses the board of misspending millions of tax dollars? Now, he is pleading for an emergency appropriation for the same board?
If residents are confused about this spectacle, who can blame them?
The issue this fall
Education has become the political issue for this fall's election.
Mr. Gary won't admit it, but he softened his hardball stance against the Board of Education because it doesn't sit well with the public.
For conservative Republicans like Mr. Gary, public education has been a convenient scapegoat for all sorts of societal ills, from high taxes to teen-age mothers.
In Washington, the GOP continues to chip away at public education by pressing for vouchers, tax credits for private schools and reduced federal financing of public schools.
Republicans also have been harping on the "failure" of the public schools and heaping much of the blame on the National Education Association, the teachers union that throws its political weight behind Democrats.
The extended political harangue against the NEA has convinced a significant segment of the population that teachers and administrators are the only beneficiaries of public spending on education.
Since public education is the largest single expenditure in local budgets, this vilification comes in handy in keeping the lid on county education spending, too.
Incompetent and greedy
Mr. Gary capitalized on the public's skepticism about education during his first three years in office. He was able to paint the school board as incompetent and teachers as greedy.
His argument wasn't hurt by the fact that the Board of Ed bungled school construction or that county teachers were among the best paid in Maryland.
But this year, Mr. Gary finds himself on the defensive.
His problem is that after years of coping with tight budgets, the school system decided to ask for the full amount of money it felt it needs to meet its obligations.
The sum was an eye-popping $501 million -- or about $60 million more than the previous year's budget.
Mr. Gary immediately jumped on the board. He ridiculed as extravagant its various requests, from $7 million for health insurance premiums to $2.5 million to account for an extra pay period caused by a calendar quirk.
He went so far as to allege that school Superintendent Carol S. Parham acquiesced to the board's inflated request as payback for her contract extension.
When the County Council approved the budget for fiscal year 1999 in May, the school board ended up with $454 million. Mr. Gary also set aside money in his contingency budget to pay for additional teachers. The education budget increased $14 million, Gary reminded people, proving that he was not stinting on education.
Mr. Gary was confident that the political current would carry him through. He felt himself being dragged by a political riptide instead.
Although the education department received an increase, the school board still had to make more last-minute cuts. It decided to balance its budget by cutting programs with a direct impact on students.
The public may be critical of public education in the abstract, but parents don't like it when tight budgets squeeze the schools their children attend.
Gary the victimizer
In an abrupt turnabout, groups of parents demonstrated on behalf of the school system. They appeared at council, school board and community meetings. The education system became the victim, Mr. Gary the victimizer.
Faced with opponents that would use voters' hostility toward him to their advantage, Mr. Gary reversed field and agreed to ask for an emergency supplemental request.
To maintain his contention that the school board continues to mismanage education, Mr. Gary enumerated for the council several instances where, in his opinion, the system misspent money.
But at this point, the public has lost interest in whether money was diverted from the textbook allowance to cover health insurance premiums or the repair budget was depleted to cover overspending in other accounts.
Between his repeated insistence for an outside audit of school spending and the board's claim that Mr. Gary is illegally interfering with education policy, the verbal battle over county schools is far from over.
Brian Sullam is The Sun's editorial writer in Anne Arundel County.
Pub Date: 7/26/98