School budgeting made easy?; Anne Arundel: Board approved $516 million plan in less than an hour, but grim realities await.


BY APPROVING Superintendent Carol S. Parham's proposed budget for fiscal year 2000 in less than an hour -- and without any changes -- the Anne Arundel Board of Education ushered in a new era of good feelings with the county executive and council.

If only it were that easy.

The board merely postponed the inevitable conflict until later in the budget cycle.

Dr. Parham's proposed budget is $516 million. That's 12 percent more than the 1999 budget of $460 million.

The plan must be cut for the county to balance its overall budget, roughly half of which goes to education. Dr. Parham, the school board and County Executive Janet S. Owens have so far avoided the nastiness that characterized last year's deliberations between the board and former County Executive John G. Gary, which ultimately played a role in his election defeat.

The county cannot afford the $352 million contribution request in this budget -- the rest comes from state and federal sources -- unless drastic cuts are made in other county departments.

The education budget calls for a 16-percent increase in the county's contribution. That's more than triple the 5-percent increase in county tax revenue last year. The same gain is expected this year.

At least the school board didn't undergo the empty exercise of larding up the education budget, placing Ms. Owens in an even more tenuous position. The board accepted Dr. Parham's budget as the starting point for negotiations with the executive.

Its decision not to make cuts was strategic: Why give away bargaining chips this early in the process, it reasoned.

Ms. Owens will have to cut this proposal. How much cooperation she receives from the school board remains to be seen. So far, it seems predisposed to accommodate her rather than fight, as it did last year with Mr. Gary.

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