Less than five months after Republican elected officials angered parents and educators with a county schools budget that fell millions of dollars short of expectations, local Republican candidates tried yesterday to reclaim the education issue for their party.
GOP county executive candidate Dennis R. Schrader and the five Republican County Council candidates gathered at party headquarters in Owen Brown village to present their platform on education.
They stressed managing growth, better prioritizing of education spending and not raising taxes as the best ways to address school funding needs. The Republicans also said they would communicate better with the school board about the budget.
They promised to avoid a repeat of this year's budget imbroglio, when Republican County Executive Charles I. Ecker proposed a tax cut at the same time he offered a schools budget that was $9.2 million short of what educators requested. Parents,
teachers and school officials organized a vigorous protest of the budget proposal; Democrats happily piled on to call for increased spending, feeling they had a winning issue for November's elections.
Now, Democrats accuse the Republican leadership of trying to steal their issue and making promises Democrats have already made. They also accuse GOP leaders of trying to distance their ticket from a Republican administration that often was at loggerheads with the school system.
"They're trying to reposition themselves as the good guys for public education, which certainly their actions don't support," said Democratic county executive candidate James N. Robey, the former police chief.
Guy Guzzone, Democratic candidate for County Council in southeastern Howard, said the Democrats held a news conference on supporting education "back when it really mattered," during the May budget debate, not as a "stunt" for political points.
"Are we going to talk about reducing class size? Are we going to talk about making sure every child can read at grade level?" asked Guzzone. "Or are we going to make sure the resources are there to actually do it?"
The Republicans assembled yesterday said the key difference between them and the Democrats is that the Democrats would prefer higher taxes to fund education. The Democrats ridiculed this year's 4 percent income tax cut as an election-year gimmick passed by council Republicans at the expense of school spending.
The two Democratic council members, C. Vernon Gray and Mary C. Lorsung, had proposed rejecting the tax cut -- which amounts to an average of $51 a taxpayer -- and increasing Ecker's education budget by $5 million. Instead, the Republican-approved budget added nearly $3.5 million to Ecker's education budget, an overall 8 percent increase for schools.
Two of the five GOP County Council candidates on the November ballot -- Gray's opponent, Susan Cook, and Guzzone's opponent, Wanda Hurt -- agreed at the time with Democrats in questioning the need for a tax cut and saying the council should have found more money for schools.
They have since defended the Republican tax cut, though not always with utter conviction: "It happened. It's over and done with, and we're going to have to live with it," Cook said yesterday after the news conference.
Cook and Hurt stood with the other GOP candidates yesterday as Schrader took on the Democrats for opposing this year's tax cut.
"Better schools don't require higher taxes," Schrader said. He again sounded a "Democrats-want-to-raise-your-taxes" theme that annoys Robey and other Democrats.
"They keep bringing it up, and I guess they're trying to paint me as a person who's going to increase taxes," Robey said. "I've never said that."
Robey and other Democrats have in fact said they would consider raising taxes if necessary to support education.
They say that after years of Republican-controlled budgets, teacher salaries are slipping, new programs are lacking and -- despite strong test scores -- the school system is in danger of losing its standing as one of the best in Maryland.
"They have a horrible record when it comes to education," Gray said yesterday. "Certainly, they need to call a press conference to try to explain themselves."
Republicans, though, point out that for most of Ecker's reign, money was tight. This year's squabble grew intense in part because it was the first opportunity for Ecker to give more generously to the school system, and some say he did not. Schrader said he and the other candidates speaking yesterday represented a new direction. "This is about the future, not about the past," he said.
The GOP education platform states that the best path to improved schools is better management of growth, constant communication with school board members, focusing more on "basic skills," supporting teachers, and holding students, parents, teachers, administrators and elected officials accountable.
Democrats say they have been talking about many of the same issues. The Republican education platform's emphasis, though, is on managing growth, the catch phrase of nearly every campaign for local office in either party.
Democrats such as Gray complain that the Republican record on managing growth is weak, but the GOP has nevertheless seized the issue to some effect this year.
Two council candidates, Allan Kittleman and Christopher Merdon, have sworn off developer contributions, though they have the advantage of running in safely Republican districts; Schrader has repeatedly hammered on the issue during his campaign, though nearly half of his campaign contributions have come from developers.
Schrader and other candidates of both parties talk about encouraging commercial development over building homes, which they argue will provide the money needed for schools and keep down class sizes and school crowding.
"The way we generate the resources to do better [in education] is by better managing growth," Schrader said.
Pub Date: 10/07/98