Owens caught in conflict on schools; Her challenge: Raising funding, not taxes


Pinched between her supporters' demands for a large increase in school funding and debts left by the last administration, Anne Arundel County Executive Janet S. Owens repeated yesterday her pledge not to raise taxes.

Her determination to keep this campaign promise, however, is threatening to collide with the centerpiece of her election platform: that she would increase the county's financial support for the public schools.

Six weeks into office, Owens the fiscal conservative is looking into the mirror and seeing her worst enemy: Owens, the liberal hero of the teachers union.

"I do not envy her position," said Democratic state Del. Michael E. Busch of Annapolis, chairman of the House Economic Matters Committee. "She's going to have to make some tough decisions."

Although budget battles are a soap opera replayed every spring in the county, Democrat Owens' dependence on union votes in her upset victory over Republican incumbent John G. Gary may make it harder for her to assume Gary's tough-guy role during budget talks that started last night and will continue intermittently until May.

On the other hand, Gary's decision to force the Board of Education to cut $9 million in programs in July despite a surplus made him look like such a skinflint that even a small increase might make Owens look a hero.

Budgeting challenges

Here are the challenges Owens faces in the fiscal year 2000 budget: Schools Superintendent Carol S. Parham told the school board last night that she is asking the county for $516 million next year, 12 percent more than this year.

An educational advisory committee on Jan. 13 released a report that the county's aging schools need $417 million in maintenance and renovation over the next five years.

In what some described as a last-minute gambit for education votes, the County Council in October moved up more than $18 million worth of school projects -- requiring the county to delay projects or face a budget shortfall.

The county recently lost two court cases involving back pay for paramedics and other county workers that will cost the county about $4.6 million.

County voters set a ceiling in 1992 on the county's tax rates, limiting increases to about the rate of inflation.

State Sen. Robert R. Neall, a Republican, and other local legislators are talking about a proposal that might reduce the county's tax revenues by about $300,000 a year as a way of helping its biggest taxpayer, Baltimore Gas and Electric Co., compete against out-of-state electric utilities.

Although the county has a $22 million surplus, county financial officials in the past have warned against digging into this cushion because it could hurt the county's bond rating.

When Owens recently asked the county's state delegates and senators for $50 million in state funding for the county's schools this year, some of them laughed at the request as far too optimistic -- saying $13 million would set a record.

John Hammond, the county's financial officer, said yesterday the county will have a hard time meeting the schools' request for a 12 percent budget increase when revenues are expected to grow 4 percent or 5 percent this year.

Resources exceeded

"That's the predicament that we're in," said Hammond. "We have many more demands than we have available resources. That's the way it is every year. But this year, we have a new county executive with different priorities."

The school board asked the previous administration for a 12 percent increase last year. Gary gave the schools a 5 percent increase -- less than school officials said they needed to maintain programs. As a result, the board cut $9 million in programs.

'Obligation to teachers'

Owens said she feels no political pressure to raise school funding because of teachers' support of her candidacy last year. She said supporting education is her philosophy.

"I feel an obligation to teachers because I believe the heart of education is the dialogue between the teachers and students," she said.

Owens has yet to announce how much she wants to give the schools or how she hopes to pay that without a tax increase. But she acknowledged yesterday that she knows the county is in a difficult position.

"To quote Senator Neall, we are on a very narrow pathway," Owens said. "I agree with that, and I am trying to determine the parameters of that pathway."

Parham told the Board of Education that the schools are hurting from the $9 million in cuts this year and face a shortage of teachers and a rise in the cost of special education.

"I am excited about working on this year's budget with a new county executive and County Council," Parham said. "Ms. Owens has delivered a clear message about the high priority she places on education in Anne Arundel County."

Teachers expect raise

Susie Jablinske, president of the Teachers' Association of Anne Arundel County, said teachers would be happy with even a modest increase in education funding this year.

Jablinske added that teachers would be very angry if that modest increase did not include the 3 percent pay raise included in the superintendent's budget request. Teachers received no pay raise this year, and a 1 percent raise in fiscal 1998.

"Teachers would be extraordinarily upset if there was no pay raise," Jablinske said. "Right now, Anne Arundel County is the fifth-wealthiest [political] subdivision in the state, but we're in 19th place of the 24 subdivisions in terms of teachers' salaries."

Democrat Pamela Beidle, vice chairwoman of the County Council, said the county may have to consider raising the hotel tax, entertainment tax or impact fees for developers.

'Very last resort'

But Daniel Klosterman, chairman of the council and also a Democrat, said he is extremely reluctant to consider tax increases.

To use the schools more efficiently, Klosterman said, the county may have to take the unpopular step of busing students from crowded schools to those that are not full.

"I never want to say categorically that we won't raise taxes, but that is my very last resort," Klosterman said.

Sun staff writer Kris Antonelli contributed to this article.

Pub Date: 1/21/99

Copyright © 2020, The Baltimore Sun, a Baltimore Sun Media Group publication | Place an Ad